Reverse-Engineering the Family Novel: Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’

In a sense, the work of this novel is to undo that fatalistic aspect of the narratives we create about our families.

The typical family novel concludes, or at least climaxes, with some sort of inevitable gathering, like a storm that has threatened throughout; a barbecue, a funeral, a birth, a party. Revelations are made, secrets spilled, rapprochements engineered (or hinted at) in such scenes, providing a cocktail of tears and perhaps laughter for the reader. Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House ends with most of the titular family grilling and drinking; Zoe Heller’s The Believers builds up to an unforgettable service for the family patriarch, Joshua Henkin’s The World Without You revolves around an expected memorial for a son killed abroad, by terrorists.

Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, out today, looks at first like it might be in the very same vein, a story about a far-flung clan in Virginia (which lends the book its title) and California. Yet Patchett has done something slightly different, reverse-engineering the family novel into something more diffuse and modern, something that speaks to the breakdown of traditional arcs and structures. For while Commonwealth begins with a memorable christening scene, full of drinking and flirting, it’s only a setup. Indeed, this celebration of life beginning leads to an ending: the dissolution of two families, the seeds sown for new permutations, step-siblings, relationships that fragment and reassemble over many years until at the very end there are so many pairings, solos and little groupings of family members exchanging phone calls and visits (in fact, another party that comes near the very end introduces an entirely new set of family members by marriage) that it comes to encompass both definitions of Patchett’s central metaphor:

Commonwealth, n. 

1- an independent country or community, esp. a democratic republic.

2-  an aggregate or grouping of countries or other bodies.

Fans of Patchett’s breakout novel Bel Canto — all of which takes place during a terrorist siege at an opera performance — know that the author can choreograph the hell out of a crowd scene, make you see where people are going, hiding, whispering, while keeping an often dread-filled awareness of where the rest are, all the time. Commonwealth’s long and memorable opening scene works this way, but instead of the terrorists, it’s the looming extramarital affair triggered by an uninvited guest who arrives like the dark fairy in Sleeping Beauty. Bert Cousins has three kids and a forth on the way, and sets his eyes on the married Beverly Keating, also married with two daughters. It’s a hot California day. Gin drink after gin drink gets poured; characters squeeze oranges, sip their gin, swelter, and ask each other to dance — and finally, a kiss sets the stage for the severing and re-forming of two families.

Suddenly six kids — Albie, Franny, Caroline, Holly, Cal — find themselves thrown together for long summers in Virginia, unsupervised and ragtag, and filled with both a sort of menace and a collective spirit. They are the commonwealth. They grab cigarettes, gin (gin recurs again and again), their parents’ guns, and troop around the countryside. When a tragic accident finally occurs that ends their assemblage, Patchett lets it happen offstage — and later, be filtered back to us through many perspectives, until we finally learn the truth.

Over and over, Patchett does this: brings us to the brink of a melodramatic moment and then sweeps us forward in time; we see that first kiss, but not the messy divorce, nor the move across the country — none of the scenes and tears that surely accompany the breakup. We see the kids playing together dangerously, but not the day it all goes wrong. And when a grown-up Franny begins to date great male novelist Leo Posen, we see the moments before and after she tells him her family’s secrets that provide fodder for his big novel. We neither witness her confessions to him, nor the confrontation her little brother Albie creates when he shows up at the Hamptons house where Franny is summering with Posen. He arrives, he is angry, he and Franny retreat to talk, and the scene closes. Again, it feels like an inversion of the traditional family novel, which thrives on fights, confrontations, slammed doors. Commonwealth’s avoidance of typical drawn-out scenes mirrors its characters, who seemingly accept the violent upheavals in their lives the best they can. Patchett even stages one chapter at a meditation retreat where nothing happens, except a chance for two characters to reflect on their lives (and catch us up on those lives, too).

And yet Commonwealth’s best sections remain its crowd scenes; with lively moments and multiple players jockeying for attention. Critics have already noted (of course) the wonderful satirical chapter, in which Franny summers in the Hamptons with Posen and finds herself turned again into a cook/hostess for a major assortment of mooching literati. There’s a sweet sequence where Albie turns up at his sister Jeanette’s Brooklyn apartment to find her claustrophobically struggling with her immigrant husband and new baby, finding a kind of happiness in their scrappy lives. There’s a final sequence that involves the two spurned spouses, Fix and Teresa, both old and sick, interacting with the younger generation who has swooped in to play caretaker.

Throughout her non-linear narrative, Patchett gives almost all her characters a chance at the spotlight, but Franny, whose christening kicked off the undoing, and whose novelist boyfriend re-aired the family tragedy, becomes a sort of glue, orbiting from one family member to the next, even becoming a stepmother herself.

Patchett favors stories about makeshift communities. “I write a book that is about a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed,” she told NPR recently of Commonwealth. So many of the novels you read have a sense of fatalism, a destined arc. In a sense, the work of this novel is to undo that fatalistic aspect of the narratives we create about our families and their histories.  There’s an understated, almost meandering way that cause leads to effect here; life throws us random snatches of happiness, misery and just being — our job is to cope. And the best we can do, if it’s possible, is find someone — a sibling, partner, step-sibling, former stepsibling, even — to muddle through with. In Commonwealth it’s not just love that makes a family; it’s survival.