We love Ann Patchett for her novels, but her new one, “Commonwealth,” reminds us that, in another world, she could have been one of our favorite short story writers, too. When she edited “The Best American Short Stories” in 2006, she singled out Eudora Welty as “the hero of my life,” and that veneration shows in the adroitly shaped, exquisitely subtle scenes that make up her fiction.
“Commonwealth” opens with a 32-page story about a party at Fix Keating’s house in Los Angeles. Fix is a policeman, and among the fellow cops and family members who come to celebrate the christening of his daughter Franny is a deputy DA named Bert Cousins, who crashes the party — with a bottle of gin — just to avoid going home to his suffocating wife and kids. As the afternoon wears on, we jumble through the crowd, spying guests and catching snippets of conversation. The narrator is transparent, but omniscient, recording the tremors running beneath the happy exterior of these people’s lives. Pay attention: This is a scene with hardly any apparent drama, yet it’s pregnant with implications that will roil two families for the next half century.
[Ann Patchett: A portrait in steel]
In someone else’s hands, “Commonwealth” would be a saga, a sprawling chronicle of events and relationships spread out over dozens of chapters. But Patchett is daringly elliptical here. Not only are decades missing, but they’re also out of order. We’re not so much told this story as allowed to listen in from another room as a door swings open and closed. When that door opens again in Chapter 2, Franny is taking her elderly father to chemo. By now, the divorces sparked by an illicit kiss at her christening are history, but the adult children of the Keating and Cousins families are still living amid the wreckage of their parents’ broken and reconstituted marriages.
Offered only the thinnest exposition and confronted with the details of four parents and six children, you may find yourself grasping for a dramatis personae. Indeed, for many pages, reading “Commonwealth” feels like being somebody’s baffled second husband at a family reunion. Who are all these people? How is he related to her? Whose child is that? Even Franny admits that “she couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.”
[Ann Patchett: Owning a bookstore means you always get to tell people what to read.]
But very soon, we’re thoroughly invested in these families, wrapped up in their lives by Patchett’s storytelling, which has never seemed more effortlessly graceful. This is minimalism that magically speaks volumes, further demonstration of the range she demonstrated in “Bel Canto” and “State of Wonder.” As we follow the Keating and Cousins children, their stories come into focus the way our own family legends gradually cohere from scraps of information and fractured memories. Even the most traumatic events — such as the death of one of the children — can be only partially known, thwarted as these characters are by invention, by gossip, by the deep emotional need to avoid the truth.
One exceptionally brilliant chapter captures a summer when the four Cousins children are shipped out to the commonwealth of Virginia to see their obnoxious father, Bert, and their two Keating step-siblings. They arrive at Dulles Airport with absolutely no luggage — a masterful bit of strategy by their abandoned mother back in California. (It’s also a reminder of what a witty writer of domestic comedy Patchett can be.) The weeks swell with marital tension and adolescent resentment as though we’re watching the most passiveaggressive episode of “The Brady Bunch” ever conceived. Driven mad by caring for four extra unhappy children, Bert’s new wife hides in the car. “She thought about the fact that if she were in the garage rather than the carport she’d be killing herself now,” Patchett writes. And left on their own, the six children invent their own ways of managing each other, sometimes with tragic results.
How families remember and judge themselves becomes one of the novel’s richest themes, and Patchett ingeniously ties that to how novelists fictionalize other people’s lives. In her 20s, when Franny has an affair with a famous writer, her tales of home inadvertently supply him with the plot of a novel that becomes an award-winning bestseller. “He said that what she had told him was nothing but the jumping-off point for his imagination,” Patchett writes. “It wasn’t her family. No one would see them there.” But, of course, Franny’s siblings and step-siblings do see themselves there. This famous stranger’s book is a jarring act of exposure and misrepresentation of their most private moments.
Lots of novelists are peppered with questions about how much of their stories are “real,” and most of them invariably, somewhat condescendingly explain that their work is wholly the product of imagination. Which makes it particularly fascinating to watch Patchett dismantle this vain and insincere male novelist who steals Franny’s life story. And yet Patchett justly insists that the relationship between fact and fiction in “Commonwealth” remains irreducibly complex. In a recent interview, she acknowledged, “I’ve always been writing about my family,” but she goes on to say, “I have a real fear that the whole publication of this novel is going to center around questions of autobiography.”
Aside from the allusions to author’s life (like Franny, Patchett is the daughter of an L.A. policeman and was raised in a blended family), the larger issue of who owns the past also recalls a more uncomfortable, real-life disagreement that broke out 12 years ago after the publication of “Truth & Beauty .” That work of nonfiction was a popular memoir about her friendship with Lucy Grealy, a writer who had survived jaw cancer as a child but succumbed to a heroin addiction as an adult. Grealy’s sister, Suellen, publicly castigated Patchett for intruding on her grief and sullying her memory of her sister: “It is mine alone,” Suellen Grealy wrote in the Guardian, “one that I don’t have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett’s personal vantage point.”
That’s a sentiment that Franny’s siblings and step-siblings know well, and it’s explored in “Commonwealth” with exceptional sensitivity. What family stories belong to us alone? Who in the family can be entrusted with the mismatched fragments of our history? Drawing us through this complex genealogy of guilt and forgiveness, Patchett finally delivers us to a place of healing that seems quietly miraculous, entirely believable.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
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Harper. 336 pp. $27.99