Ann Patchett's bravura 'Commonwealth' traces the 50-year fallout after an illicit kiss

“Commonwealth” begins with a kind of fever dream: A christening party in 1964 Los Angeles that takes a left turn when a giant bottle of gin is introduced. Suddenly, the orange trees that grow around the neighborhood are being stripped for juice, drunk adults are dancing in the midday sun and even the Catholic priest is comparing the bounty to the miracle of fishes and loaves.

Sunshine and citrus: In literary California, these have long been potent symbols of the abundant promise of life in the west. In Ann Patchett’s bravura rendering, the two are dangerously intoxicating, triggering a kind of giddy, selfish blindness. The party that starts as a kid’s celebration ends with an illicit kiss that will have repercussions still being felt 50 years later. 

Loosely inspired by Patchett’s own Los Angeles childhood — and the divorces and remarriages of her parents — “Commonwealth” is a beautiful puzzle box of a book, one that doesn’t clearly fit together until all of a sudden, midway through, it does. Unpretentious and ultimately heartbreaking, miniaturist but also sprawling, “Commonwealth” is a story about family stories: how they shift based on the person who tells them, and how they can slip from your grasp and become part of someone else’s narrative.

A virtuosic writer, Patchett has already proved her ability to render an extraordinary range of worlds: a Vietnam-era home for unwed mothers (“The Patron Saint of Liars”), medical researchers living among an Amazonian tribe (“State of Wonder”) and hostages of South American freedom fighters (“Bel Canto”). In “Commonwealth,” Patchett turns her eye inward, finding as much richness and depth in the small lives of an American family as she has in the further-flung exotica of her past works.

“Commonwealth” jumps off with that gin-soaked party, a celebration for Franny Keating, the daughter of a Los Angeles cop. Bert Cousins, a lawyer acquaintance of her father, shows up uninvited and kisses Franny’s beautiful mother, Beverly, beginning an affair that eventually leads to the dissolution of two families and the creation of one new one. The Keatings have two children; the Cousins have four, and the messy relationship in the ensuing blended family comprises the backbone of “Commonwealth.”

Written as a series of vignettes spanning half a century, “Commonwealth” shifts back and forth in time as well as among narrators, anchored primarily by the character of Franny but also slipping into the points of view of assorted parents and siblings. There’s Bert, the dissolutely charming philanderer; Albie, the juvenile delinquent; Jeannette, the silent child; Teresa, the frazzled single mother of four; Fix, the empathetic Los Angeles cop. The family comes awkwardly together until the accidental death of the oldest child, 15-year-old Calvin, at which point their lives begin to spin apart.In Virginia, where the Cousins move after the divorce and remarriage, the six kids are mostly left to their own devices. They, in turn, make proper 1970s mischief.

They feed the pesky littlest brother Benadryl; they steal their father’s gun; they sneak out and swim unsupervised in lakes. “It was like that every summer the six of them were together,” Patchett writes, capturing the essence of a lost childhood. “Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren’t, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.”

Eventually, though, the children do get caught, but only when it’s too late and Calvin is dead. The book loops around this event: All of the Cousins and Keatings remember Calvin’s death differently, depending on their proximity to it, and their memories define the shape of each person’s life. 

Franny goes on to become the live-in mistress of the much-older literary legend Leon Posen — a needy, misogynist drunk, Patchett’s amusing little jab at the mythic Great American (Male) Novelist. Posen, in turn, poaches Franny’s family history and uses it as the basis of his next novel, “Commonwealth,” much to the horror of the entire Cousins-Keating clan. Forty years after Calvin’s death, the family members discover that they are trying to understand what happened. Patchett is interested in how the past fuses with the present, making it impossible to separate the two; and how no one can quite grasp where the innate truth of a story might lie.

As Franny muses, at one point, “How could she have heard a story so many times and just now realize that all of the interesting parts had been left out?”

Patchett has never been a whiz-bang literary stylist, though she has a delicate way with a turn of phrase (a snowy traffic jam consists of “cars crawling back to the suburbs like beaten dogs,”  kids huffing Reddi-Wip enjoy the “small, sweet kick of fluorocarbons.”) Instead, her books are rich with emotional intelligence and observation. The relationships between the Cousins and Keatings are drawn sharply and plausibly: in the reluctant familiarity, the seething resentments, and the unexpected fondness that underlines their connections. 

Patchett’s prose also contains a light, dry wit, visible most clearly when she sets out to gently satirize aspects of contemporary culture. Her portrait of the publishing industry — preening editors chatting about Russian refuseniks while enjoying freebie weekends in the Hamptons, self-involved debut novelists bemoaning that “FSG never has any real money” — can be a little inside-baseball, but that doesn’t make it any less cutting. Or when Teresa, finally retired after a lifetime of working for the district attorney’s office, goes to visit her oldest daughter, Holly, at the Swiss meditation center where she now lives and realizes that her daughter has essentially sent herself to prison. Teresa thinks of “[a]ll of the cases she had worked to prepare so that they would be prosecuted and spend their nights in narrow beds and spend their days in silence…. Were those men staring up at their ceilings now in the cells where they lived, trying to empty their minds?”

If there’s any weakness to “Commonwealth,” it’s that the reader is left wishing they knew more about the family members who don’t get their moment in the spotlight. Calvin, for example, remains an enigma, barely on the page before he dies; and upwardly aspirant Beverly is never given a chance to prove she has an interior life. Patchett tries to lightly fill in these holes, eliding swathes of history and character with a few sentences of exposition, but the gaps can be frustrating.

Similarly, this is not a book one turns to for plot. The present story lines are overshadowed by the events of the past, the book’s most contemporary scenes existing primarily as an entrée to older memories. But that is perhaps Patchett’s point: That life is a series of vignettes strung loosely together, and that there are moments from which the rest seem to hang, the points from which a family may never really recover.

Reading “Commonwealth” is a transporting experience, as if you’ve stepped inside Patchett’s own juice-saturated memories and are seeing scenes flash by, in all their visceral emotion. It feels like Patchett’s most intimate novel, and is without a doubt one of her best.

Brown is the author of the novels “All We Ever Wanted Was Everything” and “This Is Where We Live.”

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Commonwealth

Ann Patchett

Harper: 336 pp., $27.99

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