When I was young, we had family friends that were in a unique situation – two families, each with two girls. The couples then swapped partners (not in a tawdry way, it was just how it worked out…), and then both had two more girls each. My family was friends with both families (pre and post swap) – one family lived down the road, I went to school with the kids from the other. It was this bizarre, fascinating mix of sisters, half-sisters, step-children and parents.
Those that have read Ann Patchett’s brilliant new novel, Commonwealth, will understand why I started with that anecdote. For those that haven’t read it, know that the first line is one of the most appealing I’ve come across in a long time –
“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”
Hurrah! A story where gin is the protagonist in the first chapter.
It’s the story of the Keating and Cousins families over five decades, as their lives become intertwined and as tragedy strikes. I’m loathe to say much more about the plot because I went into it knowing little and I recommend you do the same – what unfolds is a mesmerising, rich story about ordinary families, set against the backdrop of 1960s California and Virginia.
Essentially, Commonwealth is a story about siblings. The Keating and Cousins children are thrown together – they share bedrooms, clothes, vacations, boredom and mischief, and treat each other with the particular blend of affection, disdain and irritation reserved for siblings.
“The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked the parents. They hated them.”
Of one pair of stepsisters, Patchett writes –
“In that sense the two of them had been a team, albeit a team neither one of them wanted to be on.”
One chapter in this superb book rises above all others (and will be the part of the story that I re-read over and over). The blended family take a road trip, staying at a motel near a lake. The six children (aged from six to 12), wake on their first morning to find a note from their parents – ‘We’re sleeping late. Do not knock.’ Left to their own devices, the children eat breakfast at a diner, then gather supplies for the day – Cokes and chocolate bars. At the last moment, Cal, the eldest boy, wants something from the car and Caroline, the eldest girl, takes a coat hanger and breaks in. Cal collects a gun and a bottle of gin.
“Caroline was a bitch by any standard, but she was also the one who had organized all the subversive acts of their childhood summers. She hated them all, especially her own sister, but Caroline got things done. When he thought of her cracking open the station wagon with a coat hanger and getting the gun out of the glove compartment, he shook his head. He had never in his life adored anyone the way he adored Caroline.”
The six kids hike to the lake, where they spend several hours swimming, returning at the end of the day happy and exhausted.
Of course, the gun, the gin, and the unsupervised swimming are nothing short of alarming however all is well with the Cousins and Keating families (and the ‘commonwealth’ is formed) –
“They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone. It was like that for the rest of summer. It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren’t, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.”
What Patchett does in this beautifully atmospheric chapter is set the major themes for the remainder of the book – that even the smallest actions can have consequences (for the most part, unintended) and that we are all anchored to our family for better or worse –
“Franny…was unable to map out all the ways the future would unravel without the moorings of the past.”
Throughout this book Patchett applies the lightest touch – there is nothing melodramatic or excessive. Instead, it’s a wonderfully simple story about a complicated family. The tragedy, when delivered, is swift, brutal and shocking, and in an instant, so much of Patchett’s seemingly arbitrary detail falls into place. It’s engrossing from start to finish.
5/5 The perfect story about families.
Pair Commonwealth with gin and orange juice, as drunk at the christening.