Thank you to Tina for moderating Commonwealth by Ann Patchett.
The novel opens with a powerful chapter. Fix and his wife Beverley are holding a lively Christening party for their second daughter Franny, a sister for Caroline. Bert, a near neighbour, decides to crash the party with a large bottle of gin, any excuse to escape the domestic tyranny of a Sunday afternoon surrounded by his three young children Cal, Holly and Jeanette, and wife Theresa pregnant with Albie. In the heady swirl of the party, he kisses Beverley and the die is cast.
Divorces follow. Bert marries Beverly moving to Virginia with her two daughters. Theresa remains in California, a single mother raising four children. Every summer she sends them to Virginia to stay with Bert and Beverly. Fix happily remarries Marjory. With all the characters set in place, Patchett produces an ambitious sprawling novel of the two families intertwined lives over the next 50 years.
Notwithstanding its wide scope, we all agreed Patchett is a master of minute observations. We laughed aloud at their recall – Theresa sending the children to Virginia with no luggage knowing Bert and Beverley’s total disinterest in the whole parenting process, Franny having to cook and wait on Leon and his house guests, the children jostling for car seats.
For those of us from large families, we concurred Patchett absolutely nailed the experience of growing up with numerous siblings – the politics of the hierarchy, the bossy one, the ignored one, the delinquent one and then the revelations in adulthood when a shared upbringing results in bonds never imagined in the early years. The shifting sands of Albie relationships through the years rang so true.
Discussion moved onto her plotting. The six children spent every summer together running wild with Bert’s handgun strapped to Cal’s leg and stolen bottles of gin. Bert and Beverly were truly neglectful parents even in the “hands-off ” days of the 70s. Patchett skillfully built up the tension of the children’s escapades and we felt relief when miraculously they got home safely………until one summer they didn’t. Cal’s death changed everything reverberating through the following decades.
We enjoyed the way the decades were covered out of sequence and using different voices….almost a series of short stories. Her beautiful writing carrying us through, though several members noted they would have welcomed a family tree. Certainly, in the first half of the book, you were constantly checking back with yourself as to whose kid belonged to whom breaking the flow of the reading experience.
A couple of members did reluctantly admit that by the end they were left feeling a bit flat, wondering what was the overall point she was looking to make with the saga………if indeed she was.
I had an issue with the reality of Franny, a law school dropout and avid reader (Patchett constantly name-dropped the books Franny devoured) earning her living as a Cocktail Waitress picking up barfly Leon Posen, a renowned author 30 years her senior. To my amusement, the whole group vehemently disagreed. It’s totally plausible Gillian, what have you done with your life? You really should get out more.
Unfortunately, no one could satisfactorily explain the title Commonwealth. What did it have to do with the novel, other than being the title of the book written subsequent published by Leon, inspired by Franny’s childhood? One member read a reviewer’s explanation; something to do with Virginia being a Commonwealth State, but we were none the wiser. We concluded there was a cultural divide and hopefully the reference was obvious to an American reader. Slight disappointment in the room as OBGers like a full explanation!