Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is just the type of novel I like – a story about ordinary people where events and feelings are unpacked and questioned.
Commonwealth starts with Franny Keatings’s christening where her mother, Beverly Keating kisses lawyer Bert Cousins and here a chain of events causing moments of love and others which result in catastrophe.
This kiss brings together the Keating children – Caroline and Franny and the Cousins children – Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie. The sets of children jet between the wronged parties over school holidays and are forced to spend their time together.
On one such occasion when the now married Beverly and Bert decide to sleep in on a family vacation, the six children take matters into their own hands and decide to have a day out by their selves, stealing Bert’s gun from his car, taking a bottle of alcohol with them and giving Albie a load of Benedryl just to shut him up. When Cal falls to the floor the children think he’s playing a game but half an hour later when he’s unresponsive their realise their actions have led to the worst possible outcome. Later in the novel we learn that Cal was horrendously allergic to bee stings and the Benedryl which Albie had consumed could have saved him.
The majority of the novel is from Franny’s perspective, fiercely loyal to her father, her and sister, Caroline are nursing the 82 year old through terminally cancer. The novel looks at Franny’s most prolific moments in her life such as dropping out of law school, becoming a waitress and meeting author Leo Posen, who once in a romantic relationship together, decides to use Franny’s life as the centre of his new novel. Cue lots of remorse and hurt once film rights are sold and her life is played out on screen.
The novel looks at the direction all the children have taken since Cal’s death – Caroline is a lawyer, Holly lives in Switzerland in a Zen community, Albie is high on drugs and cannot settle in one place and Jeannette lives in New York. Bert and Beverly separated several years earlier.
Caroline and Franny, at the end of the novel are both in their fifties and are at the age where parents are sickly and they run between their cancer stricken father, their mother who has married for the third time and her husband who now has dementia and Teresa, their step mother, who they go to hospital with when she complains of pains.
Whilst this does not sound like the most exciting book, it’s a novel which openly explores and discusses family life in the twenty first century. It’s no longer a case of having two parents and 2.4 children, there’s step parents and multiple step brothers and children and yet with all these people around you still, at times, feel alone.
I could easily see this played out on the big screen. A must-read.