Here’s a great family saga that begins in the 1960s with six kids from two different families, the Cousins and the Keatings, thrown together because of an affair, a divorce and then a marriage. As the four parents establish their new lives, the kids are left to figure things out for themselves. Two sisters live with their mother and stepfather in Virginia and the four children from the other family are based with their mother in California during the school year. The step-siblings spend summers in Virginia, largely unsupervised and, while much of what they do is just kids’ stuff, they also take risks and use their own means to control their hyperactive youngest brother, Albie.
Until one summer when tragedy changes everything. The children, now adolescents, and their parents must carry on and Commonwealth is the story about how they do that. About halfway through the book, readers learn more about Franny Keating, who begins a relationship with a famous author, Leo Posen. And the story then becomes something new, showing the impact of this relationship on the rest of the Cousins and Keatings.
To describe what happens next would spoil the story, as the step-siblings manage their adult lives and their parents adjust to changes in their own relationships. Despite the large number of characters, Patchett shows how each of the unique and flawed personalities circle through anger, separation and illness.
While some readers may not enjoy the complicated dynamic within these families, I loved it, although I did take notes of the characters and their relationships. For readers who enjoy family sagas, Commonwealth is a terrific look inside the messy lives of a large and slapped together family. And Patchett’s clever way of telling a story within a story is the reader’s reward for keeping careful track of her characters.
This is my third Ann Patchett book and I love her writing style. Her books have completely different settings, characters and story lines, underscoring how versatile Patchett’s writing is. I read and loved Bel Canto many years ago and more recently read State of Wonder (read my review here).
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