Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Commonwealth.
In Commonwealth, the inevitable fracture of two families starts with an illicit kiss when Albert Cousins attends Fix and Beverly Keating’s christening party in Torrance, California, in 1964. Arriving with a bottle of gin, Albert is ready to spend an afternoon away from his pregnant wife, Teresa, and his three young children, Holly, Jeanette, and Cal. Albert willingly admits that he doesn’t really know Fix that well. Fix seems to remember that he once met Albert through a mutual acquaintance, but the recollection is brief and tainted by the talk of his long-term partner, Lomer.
On this street with its low-rising bungalows and blooming orange trees, the party--with its mix of cops and firemen from the
city of Los Angeles--appears to be in full swing. At first Albert, “this uninvited guest”, is tasked with making orange juice in the kitchen. But when Fix asks him to hold little baby Franny, Albert finds himself wondering through the house.
He ends up in a darkened pink bedroom, seduced by the smell of Beverly’s perfume as well as the magic of gin and orange juice. This one chance meeting becomes the catalyst for the Keatings and the Cousins as their lives ricochet outwards. Confronted with the need to make an impossible choice between facing his pajama-clad children and newly pregnant wife, Albert relocates
to Virginia, taking gorgeous Beverly with him.
Presenting her own unique perspective on a fractured childhood, Patchett shows us how a child’s world can be shattered by the instant actions of their parents. In Virginia, this new and extended family comprised of the Keating and the Cousins children attempts to bond over one summer, “a working situation” that will exist from the beginning of September through to the end of May. Faced with the dilemma of now having to look after four girls and two boys, Beverly
drowns in the sea of “child-life” with no clear memory of how she got there. Albert, meanwhile, finds himself caught between his compulsion to run from his kids while taking the time to reassure his new wife: “everything that’s happened in our lives up until now; everything we’ve done it had to happen exactly the way it did so that we could be together.”
Albert’s ambivalence over family life is crucial to the progression of events and the truth behind the stories of Fix, who fifty years later, at
age 83, is dying of cancer. Franny and her older sister, Caroline, now take turns flying out to Los Angeles to help Fix’s wife, Marjorie, with her ailing husband’s palliative care. Through Fix’s drug-addled ruminations on his life, his daughters finally learn of their past: the incident at christening party; Cal’s allergy to bees;
and the Benadryl “that keeps you from itching later on.” As Fix tries to put it all into perspective--this room, this day, his daughters, and his home in Los Angeles, just off Olympic Boulevard--he finally tells his daughters how Caroline could have been “a model citizen” if Beverly hadn’t “blown it all” by running off with Bert Cousins.
From Virginia to Los Angeles, Patchett recounts the ties to this extended family’s past and present as time slips and slides in a series of splintered recollections encompassing
50 years. Franny bookends the tale, from her celebratory christening, to her affair with a famous Jewish author, to her eventual return to Los Angeles to look after Fix. Franny and Caroline lived in Virginia in a kind of “alternative existence” for longer than either one of them lived in Los Angeles. Here in Virginia, the Cousins' summer family home is suffused with memories as the six siblings gather
for the last time before Cal’s unexpected and tragic death. Full of emotion and possessing not one shred of tribal loyalty, the children
bond together with common one overarching principle: the hatred of their parents.
The novel shows the inevitable cracks in time, of children inexorably separating,
and adults being drawn together through attraction and loneliness. Albie proves to be the most recalcitrant of characters, later becoming a drifter of sorts. Teresa hunkers down with what she considers to be her real family: Jeanette and Holly and Albie, the three people closest to her in those lean emotional years in Torrance.
Here the four remaining members of the Southern California Cousins eventually learn to become more profoundly themselves. Patchett deftly channels the inestimable burden of all of their lives--their work, friendships, marriages, and their children--“as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.”
While most of the drama of the novel comes from this juxtaposition of child
and adult down through time, Franny anchors this tale, providing a window into how different her family look and act when filtered through the lens of age and experience. In a world where the death of a child trumps infidelity, this achingly real tale shows how one extraordinary event can bind two families forever together, in spite of their singular griefs and long-held animosities.