Amid a gin-soaked christening party in sunny Southern California, two adults share a kiss: a decision that upends the lives of two married couples and their six children. What begins in California leads to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and reverberates to the Swiss Alps, the Hamptons, Hollywood, and New York.
In 2005, my long-established book club read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto and thus began our devotion to all things Patchett. We devoured State of Wonder, Run, The Magician’s Assistant, The Patron Saint of Liars. Patchett has a way of writing the beauty of extraordinary moments within sometimes ordinary lives. In Commonwealth, the lives are much more ordinary and even the extraordinary moments are prompted by commonplace events: a family vacation, a bee sting, a christening gift.
My book club met this week to discuss Commonwealth and several of us had the same reaction to reading it. After putting down the book for the night, you come back to it and find that you’ve missed something. Somehow something major has happened that you don’t remember. So you backtrack and re-read trying to find the trail that you forgot and instead, find it isn’t there. I believe this is intentional. The Washington Post reviewer felt much the same way:
Offered only the thinnest exposition and confronted with the details of four parents and six children, you may find yourself grasping for a dramatis personae. Indeed, for many pages, reading “Commonwealth” feels like being somebody’s baffled second husband at a family reunion. Who are all these people? How is he related to her? Whose child is that? Even Franny admits that “she couldn’t follow all the lines out in every direction: all the people to whom she was by marriage mysteriously related.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/commonwealth-ann-patchetts-masterful-novel-of-family-and-family-secrets/2016/09/06/fdc14946-7062-11e6-9705-23e51a2f424d_story.html
There is a family saga here, one which I’ve learned resembles many of the circumstances in which author Ann Patchett was raised. But my take-away from Commonwealth was that Patchett was commenting more on writing than on family. Franny, whose christening party begins the novel, grows to adulthood and has a long-term relationship with a prominent author 30 years her senior. Franny tells him her family story which he promptly novelizes to great acclaim — and the sale of movie rights.
And now twenty years later here was Albie in the actress’s summer house, having read about that day he had largely slept through in a novel written by someone he’d never met. Franny shook her head. Her hands were cold. She had never been so cold before. “I’m sorry,” she said. The words came without volume and so she said them again. “I know that isn’t worth anything but I’m sorry. I made a terrible mistake.”
“How did you make a mistake?” Leo said. He reached into the box and took out the bottle of Beefeater. “I’m going to have a drink. Would anyone else like a drink?”
“Did you think I was never going to see it?” Alfie asked. “I mean, maybe that was a good guess. It took me long enough.”
“I was trying to explain to him before you got here,” Leo said, pouring some gin in a glass. “Writers get their inspirations from a lot of places. It’s never any one thing.”
Franny looked at Leo, willing him to pick up his glass and go back out to the porch to smoke with his guests. “Just give us a minute,” she said to him. “This isn’t about you.”
“Of course it’s about me,” Leo said. “It’s my book.”
“I still don’t understand this,” Albie said, pointing at Franny and then at Leo. “How did he wind up with my life?”
Ultimately it may be the STORY of the life rather than the living of it that is the ultimate separator or connector of this family.
Commonwealth begins with a party and ends with a party and but gin and regret fuel the journey. I highly recommend it for your book club.
Ann Patchett provides lots of delicious food options if you want to cook from the book.
Franny’s christening features gin and oranges.
Franny and Leo’s Hamptons excursions offers several possibilities:
A meal of steak, asparagus, baked potatoes, salad and cake. Frank rubs the steak with “a little bit of Old Bay” and then lets it sit before cooking.
Another meal involves her mother’s seafood chowder, salad with nectarines, cheese biscuits.
The final party of Commonwealth features a Virginia Christmas feast: ham biscuits, boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, petit fours.
Our book club’s hostess served the ever-present gin with fresh-squeezed orange juice as was served at Franny’s christening. Salmon poached in lemon. Roasted asparagus. A salad with nectarines. Orange cake. It was delicious.
My playlist would include:
Only the Good Die Young, Billy Joel
Sweet Virginia, Rolling Stones
It Never Rains in California, Alan Hammond
D.I.V.O.R.C.E, Tammy Wynette
Wrapped Around Your Finger, The Police