Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on Commonwealth.
Two marriages are deconstructed and reassembled in Patchett’s Commonwealth, a drama ranging from Southern California to Virginia.
The children are collateral damage of the broken unions of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Albert (Bert) Cousins and his wife, Teresa, and of police officer Frances Xavier Keating (Fix) and his strikingly beautiful wife, Beverly. Cousins invites himself to the christening party for Fix’s baby daughter, Franny, a large bottle of gin his contribution to the celebration. Once he sets eyes on Beverly Keating, Bert falls helplessly in love, determined to be with the other man’s wife regardless of the consequences.
The house party brims with inebriated guests and joyfully rampaging children.
That first meeting between Bert and Beverly sets the pace of the novel, a sort of careless succession of random choices.
The spiraling changes of two “new” families and the detritus of broken marriages scatter from one domestic scene to another. The scorned spouses suffer the humiliation and reconstruction of their lives in order to move on, but the children experience the most upheaval long-term, sent from one household to another--the four children of Bert and Teresa (Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie)
and Fix and Beverly (Caroline and Franny). Every summer, the Cousins siblings are sent from California to Virginia. From the start, the children bond rather than resist this combination.
Parents fade into the background as a new tribe is formed, a buffer against the adults who seek escape from the chaos their selfishness has wrought: “In the summers they wandered out of the civilized world and into the early orphanage scene of
Commonwealth is the children’s story, a reflection of contemporary society’s embrace of fractured unions, second marriages, and the uneasy configuration of children mixed and matched as needs demand. This band of stepchildren--two boys
and four girls--inhabit their own universe and pecking order, a tight unit that operates without sanction, each household coping with unexpected challenges and the rancid bitterness divorce often yields. The years pass, the future redefined by events both tragic and predictable. From childhood though maturity, their lives come full-circle. Parents grow elderly and needful of assistance. Though they have wandered to separate places, the bond of the stepchildren remains intact, the shared intimacies of their particular childhood reconciling the lives they have with the passage of time and mistakes made along the way. That raucous celebration of Franny’s christening is the hallmark of the future: life’s random assaults, the bonding of children, and the loss of the familiar.
The characters take their places, assuming new roles. The drama that began it all--two married people desiring a different spouse--grows distant, insignificant, Franny and Christine Keating remaining entangled with the grown Cousins, even the wild, unpredictable Albie returned to the fold. Franny plays a significant role in the family dynamic, her affair with an older, established writer inspiring one more twist to a family history already rife with them.
The final chapters are a poignant reflection rich in wisdom, regret, compassion, and forgiveness. Patchett cuts to the heart of existence in the age of divorce, a reminder of the burden children bear when fashioning new lives with new parents, surviving as a tribe, in thrall to their parents’ choices: “It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the friendships…all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.”