Off the page: ‘Commonwealth’

Ann Patchett

Ahhh, the ripple effect of simple choices. Family choices. Personal choices. Author Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth chronicles five decades of a family and the choices each of the six siblings make after adults upend their idyllic childhood. The first sentence of this book sets the scene for everything to follow:

“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

A kiss at the party between a man and woman married to other people soon leads to divorces and remarriages with the children in tow—often cross-country. And Patchett follows these children of the blended families and quietly illustrates the turns their lives take.

In a memorable scene, it is 1971 and the children ages 6 to 12 years are staying with the parents—the mother of two of the girls and the father of two more girls and two boys—at a motel near a lake. The kids awake to find a note that reads, “We’re sleeping late. Don’t knock.” So they eat breakfast at a diner, then gather soda, candy bars, a gun and liquor and hike to the lake where they spend hours swimming. Patchett paints this scene of neglect without fanfare, and without telling the reader what to think. It simply happened and helped define so much of the children’s future.

“They had done everything they had ever wanted to do. They had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.”

This story is not told in chronological order, so it takes a bit to piece all the family members together and who belongs to whom. Much like going to a family reunion of your spouse. But the storytelling in such a way softens each scene and reminds the reader that much of life is a consequence of personal history.

How families remember and judge themselves—and others—becomes a theme throughout the book. And each member has his or her own version of the truth. But it’s also a testament to love and the bonds of family, whether by blood or by marriage, that keeps the pages turning. It’s a story, ultimately, of forgiveness and humanity. Of mercy and respect. It’s real and it’s believable, as only Ann Patchett can tell it.