Rated Reads

Commonwealth

by Ann Patchett

Rated: High

It’s the middle of the ’60s, and Beverly and Fix Keating are holding a christening party for their second daughter, Franny. It’s a hot day in Southern California, and as one thing leads to another, the adults (and some of the kids) are drinking gin mixed with freshly squeezed orange juice. And the guest (uninvited, as it happens) who brought the big bottle of gin, Bert Cousins, ends up kissing Beverly.

A few years later, Beverly and Bert are married, and they’ve moved to Virginia, where Bert and his first wife, Teresa, were originally from. Teresa stays put in L.A., as does Fix. And the six combined kids from the two families are thrown together, primarily over the summers, in Virginia.

Commonwealth follows the six children and four adults over the course of 50 years. The children’s youthful exploits together, along with a tragedy, bond them in what some may consider unexpected ways.

When Franny is in her 20s, she has a long affair with a famous, much-older novelist, and she shares with him the details of the tragedy that happened one summer in Virginia. The children all felt complicit in what happened, and they didn’t speak the full truth about it to their parents. When Franny’s confidences to the writer turn into a wildly successful book, everyone is forced to relive that time.

Commonwealth skips around in time and examines slices of life from different characters’ perspectives, from Franny, who is so eager to please the novelist she’d long admired but can’t figure out what she wants to do with her life; to Albie, the youngest son of Bert and Teresa who as a child bugged everyone else and, later, became the delinquent; to Bert as an older man, who never can let go of the past; to Jeannette, the next-older sister to Albie, who for much of her youth didn’t even speak but turns out pretty normal, and the rest.

For much of the book, it seemed its only purpose was to look at vignettes of the characters’ lives over time. But more than halfway through, it held together and started really coming into its own. The pieces of the puzzle started fitting together, showing the picture of what really happened and why on the fateful day in summertime Virginia so long ago. The book explores a bit the “ownership” of the family’s tale, how important a role “truth” played in the final fictional story, and how much it should really matter to the family in the end.

The book even more struck me by the end as an exploration of how blended families can create lasting bonds, even with all the drama of parents separating and marrying and separating yet some more. The story wrapped up with a look at each character, and observations of how each was still connected to the others, and it was sweet and poignant and just hit me “with all the feels.” I loved it at that point and was sad it was then over.

Rated: High, for 20 or more uses of strong language and other milder language. Sexual content is pretty much limited to brief details here and there.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 15 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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commonwealth
  • Commonwealth
  • by Ann Patchett
  • Rated: High
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: