LitStack Rec: Commonwealth & All the Birds in the Sky

by Lauren Alwan

Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

Of divorce, Nicole Krauss wrote, “One of us held on to the ambition of the one idea far longer than was reasonable, whereas the other, passing a garbage can one night, had casually thrown it away.” That’s how ending a marriage can feel, especially for the spouse who’s left behind, an analogy that is as applicable to the children who are caught in the middle. Where the dissolution of marriage is concerned, the lingering effects of loss and bitterness are equal opportunity afflictions—for those who don’t choose divorce, and sometimes for those who do.

Commonwealth, Patchett’s ninth book and seventh novel, charts the six children of two sets of parents through the emotionally fraught circumstances that come with divorce, and growing up in a blended family. At the christening party of Frances Xavier Keating, called Franny, her beautiful mother Beverly accepts a clandestine kiss from one Bert Cousins. He’s an attorney in the DA’s office who works with her husband, Fix (aka Francis Xavier), a cop on the beat in downtown L.A. The action soon after deposits us in the present, in which the now grown and middle-aged children, with marriages and children of their own, navigate their ruptured past and all its attendant freight. Fix, now in his eighties, has metastacized cancer, Beverly and Bert are married to other people, and Bert’s ex-wife Teresa lives alone in the same house in which she raised her four children. For the Keating and Cousins children, the anger they feel at their parents’ broken marriages has been complicated by a collective sense of guilt that none have moved past—and which centers on an event I won’t spoil by discussing here.

On the matter of divorce, Patchett allows nearly every character a chance to make their case: on the difficulty of being left to raise children alone (as it is for Teresa, Bert’s ex-wife), or coping with the behavior children not one’s own (as Beverly does when her four stepchildren summer with them in Virginia), or the anger of being separated from the parent you want to live with (as Caroline feels at the absence of her father, Fix). Yet despite the story of divorce Patchett clearly has to tell, there’s a meta-heavy turn of events here that takes the novel into adjacent narrative territory. As a young twenty-something law student making ends meet by cocktail waitressing in DC, Franny meets and becomes involved with a much older, and famous, novelist, Leon Posen. In the five years they spend together, he writes a novel based on her family’s story of divorce and its connected tragedy. After Posen’s death, the novel is made into a film, and as each family member encounters this fictionalization of their story, they react with varying degrees of anger and disagreement.

This narrative direction doesn’t offer quite the same access to understanding what it’s like to grow up in a blended family, a subject Patchett knows something about, and which indeed, provided the seeds of the novel. Some of the best detail, and the most affecting scenes here, portray this emotional core of the story—in the confused roles and boundaries, the painful absences, and the imposed distance that takes place when families break apart. For example, the oldest Cousins son, Cal, refusing to give up the TV in his stepmother Beverly’s bedroom, sister Caroline’s constant anger against Franny that erupts in violent slaps and shoves, the six children spending a day alone while their parents take refuge in a motel room, and their collective maneuvering against the youngest Cousins boy, Albie. Patchett writes so well about the range of machinations and allegiances because she’s been there. Even as an adult, daughter Jeanette recalls of her father, Bert, “he had left them years ago and would never come back unless it was to spend the day at the amusement park.”

Still, Patchett has called this her first “autobiographical novel,” which suggests the construction of the novel-turned-film-within-a-novel is another part of the story she has to tell. When, in 2004, Patchett published the memoir, Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, recounting her relationship with the author Lucy Grealy (who died in 2002), Grealy’s family disputed the account as portrayed by Patchett. And yet, in Commonwealth, while the idea of who owns a story may be intellectually engaging, it’s the depth of feeling brought by separation that yields the best material here. As here, for Caroline: “All she had ever wanted when she was young was to live with her father and no one would let her.”

“Ancient history,” Fix, at eighty-four, assures his two adult daughters as he enters the theater to see the film with Caroline and Franny. Though in the end, it turns out the history isn’t so ancient after all.

—Lauren Alwan

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