a bookclique pick by Jessica Flaxman
A bottle of gin. A gun. A tablet of Benadryl. A book. In Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, these everyday objects take on resonant meanings for the blended family that is born in the wake of an adulterous kiss at a gin-and-orange soaked party. Fix and Beverley Keating are picture perfect, for a few pages, at least. He is a police detective in LA and she is a beautiful housewife. They are raising two children in the 1960’s when, out of nowhere, a handsome lawyer avoiding his own family decides to pay his respects and join the celebration of little Franny Keating’s christening. Bert Cousins is no friend of Fix Keating’s, and although Bert has not come to the Keating house to claim Fix’s wife, Beverley, that’s precisely what happens. The chemistry between Bert and Beverley is electric, and in the twenty-five minutes that Fix is absent, having gone to fetch ice and tonic to mix with the gin that Bert has brought as a gift, Bert and Beverley have fallen in love. Shortly thereafter, the Cousins-Keating children’s lives are completely upended when they each lose a parent and gain new siblings. Bert and Beverley, who get custody of all six children for a few weeks each summer, are more keepers than parents, leaving them to entertain themselves and in some ways to raise themselves. When Cal, Bert’s oldest child by his first wife, Teresa, dies in an accident involving the other Keating and Cousins kids, the fallout is even more extensive than the impact of Bert and Beverley’s illicit kiss in the kitchen years before. Things take an interesting turn when Franny Keating, the little girl whose christening was the backdrop for the kiss and the subsequent divorces, as a grown woman catalyzes further events by telling her family’s story to a famous author with writer’s block, Leon Posen, who writes it all down to great acclaim in his novel titled Commonwealth. Patchett, author of so many amazing books including Bel Canto and State of Wonder, calls Comonwealth her “first autobiographical novel.” In an NPR interview, Patchett said, “What I’ve realized is that all of my books have been the same book. 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.” Commonwealth, a novel about the spontaneous communities that sprout up around the most chance of happenings, gathers readers in a tight embrace and doesn’t let go. Like all great books, it reminds us that our actions and words contribute always to the lives and experiences of others – that we are all in a commonwealth with one another, all of the time.