I spent this past weekend in Las Vegas and the beautiful weather allowed for two glorious pool days. During those hours of lounging I immersed myself in Ann Patchett's Commonwealth. Patchett has written 10 books, but this was the first one I had read.
Commonwealth is the story of two families, broken apart by infidelity and glued back together with new unions. Teresa and Bert Cousins live in Torrance, CA with their four children (two boys, two girls). One day Bert finds himself at a christening party for another couple's daughter, Beverly and Fix Keating (the baby being celebrated is their second girl). Unexpectedly, in the nursery, new mother Beverly and party guest Bert share a kiss that ignites a romance and will go on to implode life as they know it.
When Bert and Beverly divorce their spouses and marry each other, they create a new blended family with six children. Patchett writes:
"Here was the most remarkable thing about the Keating children and the Cousins children: they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty. The Cousinses and the two Keatings could have done without each other entirely. The four girls were angry about being crowded together into a single room but they didn't blame each other. The boys, who were always angry about everything, didn't seem to care that they were in the company of so many girls. The six children held in common one overarching principle that cast their potential dislike for one another down to the bottom of the minor leagues: they disliked their parents. They hated them."
The book dances back and forth between present day (when the children are older and have kids of their own) and memories of the past - their first summer as a new family of eight, the trouble they would get into as the new gang of siblings and how lost they felt as they grew into their college and post-college years.
Personally, I was captivated by the story of Franny (the baby whose christening set everything into motion). She spent most of her twenties in a love affair with a man many generations her senior. Later she finds her way back to her law school roommate, a recent widower with two young sons. Franny also has the strongest connection with the oldest sibling (her biological sister, Caroline) and the youngest sibling (her stepbrother, Albie).
Though most of the book concentrates on the children, toward the end we learn more about the four parents and how they look back on their lives once they are in their seventies and eighties. In one passage, Teresa (the woman scorned) reflects on when Bert first proposed to her, right after law school:
"Teresa looked back and forth between Bert and the pretty ring on her hand and thought she must be emitting light from her entire body she loved him so much. It was unnerving to remember that now, at seventy-two, spreading strawberry jam on the tip of her croissant, how much she had loved him. She could barely hold the thought in her mind. She had loved Bert Cousins, and then grown used to him, then was disappointed in him, and then later, after he left her with four small children, she had hated him with the full force of her life."
The book is less plot-driven and more about the ways in which the affair (and eventual second marriage) shaped each member of the family - parents and children. The writing is honest, revealing the sometimes unflattering thoughts, motives and actions of people who are hurt, confused and struggling.
Have you read any of Ann Patchett's books? Is there another I should try next?