Published: September 13, 2016
The opening scene is set up like artwork. You understand the background of the characters, the pace of their movements, the absurdity of their choices. You feel the heat of the summer day, understand the lives that the characters lead and the small town that they live in. You feel the music, the alcohol, the excitement, the dramatic turn of events that awaits. You feel some characters sliding out of focus while others are becoming more intensely illuminated even electrified. It’s as if a magic spell has been cast over the christening party with the the arrival of the handsome uninvited DA, his enormous bottle of liquor and love of oranges. The tension and magic builds feverishly until the kiss between Bert Cousins and Fix Keating’s beautiful wife, Beverly.
“Commonwealth” starts out as a gorgeously written story about two families disrupted so casually, so brutally by this kiss at a christening party. The writing is so tight, so vivid, and the storyline is riveting. It follows the lives of the children and the parents in the aftermath of divorce. Each chapter is it’s own short story, jumping in space and time from the last. There are characters to love, to pity, to sympathize with, to worry about, to mourn for. The characters are all so human and the essence of humanity is explored through each of them.
The chapters pertaining to the children growing up together, especially the ones taking place during the summer when all six children are together are astonishing. They are so well written and seem to contain so much truth. The amount of abandonment experienced by these children and hatred for their parents is astounding. The children were on their own to do as they pleased and Albie, the youngest, was the only thing holding them back. So, what did they do? They drugged him.
Interestingly, this book is semi-autobiographical with many parallels to Ann Patchett’s life. She grew up in a blended Catholic family. Her father was a policeman. Then, there is a chapter about how Franny becomes Leo Posen’s muse. This writer, who is Franny’s lover, basically manipulates her life story into a novel, entitled Commonwealth, which is entirely her life and at the same time, not at all her life.
This story asks so many existential questions. How important is a moment in time? What would have happened if that one day had gone differently? Would the outcomes have been similar? What is important in the end? How does family shape us?
As much as I adored the character development and the first three quarters of the novel, I must admit that some of the magic of it had departed by the end, for me. The characters were dispersed geographically and emotionally. As much as Ann Patchett gave me exactly what I wanted in the end, which was an understanding of all the mysteries and a knowing of how each character of these two families fared in life, this part was far less interesting to me. Still, Ann Patchett is a brilliant, gifted writer and I was awed and amazed for at least the first three quarters of this book.
- Fix tells the story of Loomis, how he died at age 29. Which is better: to die young and healthy or old and sick? How do he and Franny each feel about this question?
- Were there any characters you truly disliked? Who and why?
- Why do you think that certain moments or parties are more susceptible to life-changing events or do you? For instance at the Christening party, the lives of the Cousins’ and the Keatings’ were forever changed. Additionally, the priest and Bonnie also came together at the Christening party.
- Did you realize the manner of Calvin’s death immediately or did you discover it later? What clues were there?
- Discuss how each child handled and was affected by the divorce and resulting neglect. Were there any characters that you felt were unaffected by it?
- Franny, the law school drop out, who loves reading, fall for Leo Posen, the acclaimed novelist. Why do you think she is willing to share her story with him? Is this therapeutic for her? Is there guilt associated with it?
- Why is there such a cover-up associated with Cal’s death among the children? Why is this necessary?
- How does Cal’s death eventually destroy the marriage of Beverly and Bert?
- Who are the children most loyal to in adulthood? Who do they confide in?
- What do you make of Holly’s decision to live in Switzerland and meditate? Is this therapeutic, escapist..?
- How are Fix Keating and Teresa Cousins affected by the divorce? What changes does the divorce bring about in them?
- What was your favorite chapter (or short story) and why?
- Discuss the title and it’s meaning in the context of this novel.