COMMONWEALTH, by Ann Patchett. Harper, 322 pp., $27.99.
A friend recently complained to me, after finishing a lovely but quiet domestic novel, that she found it a bit, well, boring. “It was like watching someone else’s home movies,” she said.
I knew what she meant — and yet. For some of us, watching other families — or reading about them in novels — is a way of grappling with our own. The subject may seem ordinary, but I’m always taken in by complex characters, honest emotions and the insinuating voice of a powerful author.
Which is a roundabout way of saying that I couldn’t have been more satisfied watching the home movies that unreel in Ann Patchett’s seventh novel, “Commonwealth.” Patchett has often built her fiction around high-concept dramas — a terrorist kidnapping gone awry at a Latin American vice president’s home (“Bel Canto”), a missing anthropologist and an Amazon tribe with extraordinary reproductive capabilities (“State of Wonder”) — but here she works in a quieter mode to tell the poignant tale of a blended family she has said is partly inspired by her own childhood.
The story begins at the home of Beverly and “Fix” Keating in the L.A. suburbs of the early 1960s: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” I’m a sucker for a good party scene, and Patchett orchestrates this one masterfully, as the guests squeeze oranges from the Keatings’ backyard trees to make modified screwdrivers, and a current of mutual attraction passes between the unexpected guest and the new mom, while infant Franny is passed from lap to lap.
The end result of this antic party (there’s also a drunken priest, a couple of district attorneys, some cops and their wives) is that Beverly and Bert will leave their respective spouses. Their children — Franny and Caroline Keating; Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie Cousins — will grow up shuttled between parents in California and Virginia, one ill-fitting but interconnected brood. “When the six of them were together they looked more like a day camp than a family,” Patchett writes, “random children dropped off at the same curb.” And: “Here was the most remarkable thing about the Keating children and the Cousins children: they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty.” Time will reveal this to be not quite the case.
Over the course of nine chapters, “Commonwealth” will hopscotch through the decades to tell the story of this brood: Troubled Albie, the youngest, sets fire to the middle school; the Virginia summer tragedy involving Cal that will imprint all their lives; Holly’s turn to Zen Buddhism at a meditation center in Switzerland; Franny’s relationship with older novelist Leo Posen, who uses their family story as the basis for his comeback novel — and a dreadful movie adaptation. (A weekend at a rented Amagansett summer house with Leo’s entitled editor, agent and various hangers-on, all of them treating Franny like hired help, is a marvelous comic set piece.)
In the final chapter, at a bookend party (Christmas with Beverly and her third, post-Bert, husband), Franny hides in the bedroom and ponders the workings of fate on her clan, beginning with that momentous christening party: “Franny, half asleep on the bedspread beside her husband, was unable to map out all the ways the future would unravel without the moorings of the past.” Are these merely home movies? Perhaps. But Patchett’s slyly knowing voice — full of wit and warmth — elevates every page of this novel — one that, through the alchemy of her writing, somehow feels more than the sum of its parts.