Ann Patchett is getting to be a favorite author around here. Commonwealth, her latest, opens at an alcohol-fueled christening party. Imagine yourself, a cop, father of the new baby, opening the door to find a colleague ready to step across your threshold, uninvited. And by the time the party’s over, he and your wife are in love.
Commonwealth wastes little time on the spark that ignites when two people gaze at each other from across the room. Instead, we dive into the mess they leave behind.
The lovers marry and dash from California to Virginia. Of course, the children complicate their bliss. When his four mix with her two on summer visits, what is she to do with all these . . . these sullen, needy little humans? She escapes to her room a lot. She sends them to Grandpa and Grandma, or trusts their care to the maid.
Meanwhile, back in California, the abandoned wife struggles with the daily grind of facing her brood—her sullen, needy brood—all by herself after a day at the office.
And the spurned husband interrogates his two daughters every time they visit. “How are things going with Bert, the guy who stole my wife?” Spurned Husband takes delight in anything that goes wrong in Bert’s life. And plenty does.
Let’s not forget about the children, coping with their overwhelmed and embittered parents. All too often, no adult is around to call a halt to the ideas that spring up in the heads of six kids, thrown together on a summer afternoon. What can go wrong, when a boy casually ties his father’s gun to his leg before he sets out for a day of exploring? What can be so bad about grandpa teaching the kids how to make match guns? Isn’t the maid keeping her eye on those kids? I’m sure they’re fine, right?
Later, as adults, one of the girls spills the story of her tangled family to the wrong person and—oh boy!—that story thread alone is worth the price of admission.
The challenge of reading Commonwealth is that the story unfolds not so much in the order things happen, but in the order everybody makes sense of what happens. The reader bounces from family to family, from California to Virginia, from past to present and back again at a dizzying rate.
If these six kids were real people, I’d buy them a couple tickets to Dr. Morse’s “Healing Family Breakdown Half-Day Retreat.” Sign in to the Resource Page and check it out.