Book Review by Michelle Goetzl
“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” So begins Ann Patchett’s newest work, “Commonwealth.” This novel tells the story of two blended families over a 50-year period starting when Albert Cousins crashes Franny Keating’s christening party as a way to avoid his own wife and children. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families.
From one kiss at a party in the 1960s, the lives of four adults and six children are forever impacted. After Albert marries Beverly, he moves his new wife and her two daughters to Virginia. His four children stay in California with their mother but fly east every summer. The siblings become a unit unto themselves with more anger directed at their parents than at each other, especially Albert.
The six children are left to their own devices in a way that we rarely see anymore. In Virginia, as the family sets out on a summer vacation, Albert and Beverly leave the children a note under their motel room door that reads, “Have breakfast in the coffee shop. You can charge it. We’re sleeping late. Do not knock.” The kids decide to walk to the lake, taking with them a six-pack of coke, 12 candy bars, a gun and a fifth of gin. They mix the gin with Benadryl to drug Albie, the youngest, so they don’t have to watch him at the lake and instead let him sleep it off under a tree.
From the aforementioned scene to a tragic accident that gets alluded to early on and not explained until about two thirds into the book, Patchett steadily builds her story. As with earlier works by Patchett, the story weaves itself together as it moves along until it becomes a cohesive work. Even what seems like a chance meeting between Franny and famous author Leon Posen becomes so much more as Posen turns their family drama into a best-selling novel.
Patchett uses a format of showing rather than telling the story, and she doesn’t fully develop all of the characters either. That said, it is a book that leaves you thinking about what you have just read. “Commonwealth” forces you to think about relationships and parenting styles, then consider the ways our society has changed since the 1960s and ’70s. While not a light read, “Commonwealth” is a profoundly engaging one.
Goetzl writes an online blog—“Books My Kids Read.” She loves books and sharing that love of reading with children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org