Magazine September 26, 2016, Issue

Out of the Past

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett (Harper, 336 pp., $27.99)

‘Life,” thinks one character in Commonwealth, “was a series of losses. It was other things too, better things, but the losses were as solid and dependable as the earth itself.” Ann Patchett’s new book is melancholy without being morose. Adultery, illness, separation, jealousy, resentment, death: She certainly doesn’t grant her characters easy passage through life. Commonwealth is a book about two families united by a foolish decision in a dim bedroom and, later, a tragedy.

Patchett is a Catholic novelist but also one with the lowercase “c.” Her plots do not have the theological sting of Flannery O’Connor, nor does she write of parishes as did J. F. Powers (or as does her contemporary, Erin McGraw). She does, though, write of nuns, as in the novel The Patron Saint of Liars (1992) and in several essays, finding that they represent what she calls the best elements of the Church: “charity, compassion, humility.” Her faith suffuses Commonwealth not so much with hope as with a sense of perseverance — and a bit of perspective.

The cast of Commonwealth is large — two full families, whose stories span several decades — and readers should not expect all characters to be equally arresting. Franny Keating is the book’s emotional and dramatic center. Patchett hinges the success of the book on the reader’s interest in Franny’s loves and losses, and it works.

Franny’s christening party begins the novel. The setting is California in the Sixties: a house party full of family and friends, and “an entire precinct worth of cops,” including Fix Keating. Fix opens the door to Albert Cousins from the district attorney’s office. “Other people brought prayer cards or mother-of-pearl rosary beads or a pocket-sized Bible covered in white kid with gilt-edged pages,” but Albert brings something the party needs: a bottle of gin. Patchett writes a nice scene of action — one way to test a writer’s dexterity is to pack a house full of people and watch them move. The gin needs juice, so the kitchen is crammed with lawyers, their “suit jackets off, ties off, shirtsleeves rolled up high above the elbow, . . . twisting the halves of oranges on two metal juicers.”

In the midst of all this talking and drinking, Fix asks Albert to find Franny, for whose affection Albert “would juice every orange in Los Angeles County.” It is in Franny’s dark bedroom that her mother, Beverly, kisses Albert — quite literally with the baby “balanced between the two of them.”

Albert and Beverly get into a long affair and then get married. They leave California for Virginia, where the chldren of the two families end up spending summers together. “Here was the 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.” Patchett focuses on the six children, not the adults, who are only a secondary presence in the novel. The children spend the summers in a haze: “They did things, real things, and they never got caught.” Those things involve Benadryls, gin, and even a gun. Patchett hints at something more, but doesn’t reveal it until much later in the book.

Fast-forward a decade: Franny has dropped out of law school during her third year and now works at a hotel bar in Chicago. “With her straight blond hair in a single loose braid, she looked like the music-video version of the Catholic schoolgirl she’d once been.” She loves books and can’t stop thinking about tort law. Chance brings famed novelist Leon Posen to her bar. Franny is star-struck; she worships his novels. They flirt. “Going to law school had been a terrible error in judgment that she had made in hopes of pleasing other people”; Franny feels “she was in debt like some sort of Dickens character.” (Franny was an English major; her allusions don’t feel forced.)

She loves Leon’s writing, and therefore loves the idea of him, “the brightness of him, the brightness that she felt standing just on the other side of the bar, [which] was more than she was willing to let go of.” Leon drinks too much, and in a funny scene, Franny drags him up and down the hotel looking for his forgotten room.

It comes as no surprise that they begin an affair that turns into a long-term relationship. Leon’s wife is in Los Angeles, and the occasional phone call and rare visit from his daughter reminds the reader that the novelist still has a family. He is more focused on his work, which brings an endless supply of literary associates to their home.

Franny tires of these literary parties. The writers, editors, and publicists in Commonwealth are insufferable. Franny entertains Leon’s literary circle with so much attention that her stepbrother Albie seriously asks her, “Do you work for them?” Albie is a long-haired amateur arsonist; not the fullest character in Commonwealth, but endearing in his own way. He is named after his father, Albert.

What is Albie doing with his stepsister and her lover? If Commonwealth had a tagline, it would be: Don’t trust novelists. Leon takes Franny’s life story and turns it into the novel’s title book. He changes names but doesn’t alter emotions and secrets. He claims that their story was “nothing but the jumping-off point for his imagination,” but it was much more. Albie has no interest in poetic license. He shoves Leon, saying, “You have no idea how hard I’m trying not to kill you.”

Commonwealth moves, and not because of tricks or artificial-seeming intrigue. Patchett’s gift is patience: She stays with these families, knowing that if we watch and wait, drama is inevitable. Patchett is a born novelist, with a natural sense of pacing and scope. Writers of short fiction dig, novelists spread. When Franny and Leon’s affair inevitably begins to fray, Patchett turns back to those lyric summers between the Keatings and the Cousinses, and we get the revelation that a tragedy occurred there. The event is murky; there are lies and cover-ups among the children that extend to adulthood.

Out of this suffering, Franny might escape — at least, so we hope. “The nuns had led her to believe that God gave preference to people who did things the hard way.” She has taken that advice to heart. “Franny couldn’t help but believe that she had brought every discomfort she experienced down on herself.” That might sound harsh as an assessment of a life, but Patchett shows masterfully how heavily we feel the past weigh on the present.

In one scene, Franny, her head in Leon’s lap, cries about the novel based on her family: “She had made a terrible error in judgment and he had turned it into something permanent and beautiful.” Patchett has written elsewhere that “in its first stages, faith is the ability to believe in something, to trust absolutely,” whereas “advanced faith is the ability to see God in all things.” Commonwealth stays true to that sentiment, finding reason for hope in every space and corner, even within a dark, quiet bedroom during a loud party — if not with the adults, then, perhaps, with a child.

– Mr. Ripatrazone is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributor to The Atlantic.

Nick Ripatrazone is a contributing editor of The Millions and has written for The Atlantic.

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