There is something of the family photo album about Ann Patchett’s new novel, “Commonwealth” — as if, for every page we turn to at random, someone pictured might lean in and tell us, “Oh, that was when. … ”
It might be Fix, the policeman from Torrance, Calif., describing the christening party where his beautiful wife, Beverly, first encounters Bert, the man who will break up his marriage. Or it might be Franny, glimpsed as a newly christened baby back then, introducing us to Leon Posten, the famous writer she unwittingly captivates while waiting tables at the Palmer House in Chicago 20 some years later. Or Holly, Bert’s oldest daughter, showing her elderly mother around the ashram in Switzerland where she’s lived for 20 years. Or Albie, Bert’s youngest, confronting Franny over the novel that Leon Posten has made of their not-quite-blended families: “Commonwealth.”
Moving fluidly from one character to another and back and forth in time over 50 years, Patchett manages to capture those moments of life that, strung together, however awkwardly, constitute family history: the couples reconfigured, the children thrown together in shifting alliances, united in their resentment of their flawed parents.
The plot, such as it is, involves a terrible occurrence during the summer when all six children of the now married Beverly and Bert are together at Bert’s parents’ place in Virginia. The oldest boy, Cal, 15, has as usual fed the Benadryl he (supposedly) keeps on hand for his allergies to the youngest, Albie (who believes they’re Tic Tacs), so he’ll doze off and leave the rest of them alone. Also, in his sock he’s got his father’s gun, easily gotten out of the glove compartment by Caroline, whose cop father has taught her how to break into a car with a coat hanger. Anything might happen, and something does — and haunts the children well into adulthood, when Leon Posten’s novel brings it all back, in public, in a big way.
Happily, “Commonwealth” deviates from Tolstoy’s line about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way. What Patchett gives us in the novel is a family felt and understood differently by each of its members, as families generally are, with these various views overlapping here and there, now and then, enough to hold everyone together somehow.
And however much the experience they share unites them, each of these characters is uniquely real, sympathetic and interesting by virtue of being so clearly and credibly drawn. And for all their differences, what distinguishes them — and the novel — is love. “Oh, my love,” Franny says, when her sister Caroline absolves her of a seeming misstep. “What do the only children do?”
And a line that comes up more than once comes to mind: “The things you really need are never there when you need them.” Because, although this might be true in some dire circumstances that arise, in the everyday business of getting along in life, these people — in their own way — have exactly what they need, which is each other.
Ellen Akins is the author of four novels and a story collection. She teaches writing and lives in Wisconsin.
By: Ann Patchett.
Publisher: Harper, 322 pages, $27.99.
Event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Oct. 18, Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul. Sold out.