Review: Marla Cantrell
“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.” That first sentence sets the course for Commonwealth, a story about two families whose lives intersect when deputy DA Albert Cousins, armed with a perfectly inappropriate gift of gin, crashed the christening party of Franny Keating. Albert knew Franny’s father, Fix, a police officer, only through his interactions with him professionally, and Albert had only come to the party to escape going home to his pregnant wife and their three children.
And then he spotted Franny’s mother and Fix’s wife, Beverly, a woman wearing a yellow dress, her hair golden, falling out of its French twist. Her beauty obliterated Albert, and before the party ended, Albert found a way to be alone with Beverly, and in a bold move, at least partially influenced by the alcohol, he kissed her.
The meeting of Albert and Beverly was the beginning of their affair. They divorced their spouses. They merged their two families and moved away from their California homes. The coupling threw heartache near and far.
For the remainder of the book, author Ann Patchett explores what happens to these families when their trajectory is changed, how the children of Albert and Beverly try to find their footing in a reality they hate and the iron bond that forms between all these broken people.
After Franny is in her twenties, working in a hotel bar to pay off student loans, she meets an author she’s long admired. He is on the downside of his career, much older than she is, and he’s mesmerized by Franny’s beauty and brains, and later, by the tumultuous story of her childhood, which includes a tragedy and secret she’s never overcome.
The story is irresistible to him, and soon he is turning her reality into his novel, called Commonwealth. The book, released to much acclaim, finds its way to Franny’s stepbrother Albie, who’s shocked to see his family’s troubles on the printed page.
But the telling of this story turns out to be a necessary unveiling. The early tragedy that’s followed them all is finally brought to light. The guilt the children felt is finally put to rest. Sometimes, Patchett seems to be saying, the battleground of our youth can turn once again to a meadow, given enough time. Given enough forgiveness.
Commonwealth is a gripping, beautiful story, so honest it feels as if you’ve been invited in to witness their unraveling and coming together. The pain they feel seems so real you could hold it in your hand. But the love they have is just as remarkable, and that is the genius of this stunning novel.
Ann Patchett will be speaking at the Fayetteville Public Library on March 31, at 7pm. The event is free to attend. For more information, visit faylib.org.
Patchett is the author of seven novels and three books of non-fiction and has won numerous awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award. She co-owns an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee.