By Ann Patchett
A young assistant DA, in mid-20th century Los Angeles, wants to avoid going home to a house full of his wife and children, so he grabs a bottle of gin and pops uninvited into a christening party for a cop's second child. His gin and freshly squeezed juice, thanks to an orange tree in the backyard, lead to dancing and an unexpected kiss or two.
The party's aftermath includes new marriages and the bringing together of six stepchildren, four girls and two boys. They spent summers together in Virginia with a parent and step-parent, forging on as a group of individuals who find ways to get along and still be themselves. Their adventures exist in a world separated from the grown-ups who forced them together.
They are forced into independence when, for example, one mother disappears for the afternoon by hiding in the car, running the air conditioning and laying down in the back seat. (She realizes that since she's parked in the carport she won't be killing herself.) Or there is the time their parents sequester themselves in one motel room until 2 p.m. while the children hike over to a lake after breaking into the family car to take another fresh bottle of gin and the father's gun. The youngest, Albie, is a constantly moving whirl who drives the others crazy. The oldest boy, Cal, is allergic to bee stings so he carries Benadryl. The kids give Albie "breath mints" that are really the Benadryl, and when he sleeps they play, explore and have adventures without his interference.
The children come to two realizations. The first:
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 the parents. They hated them.
The other realization:
They had done everything they had ever wanted to do, they had had the most wonderful day, and no one even knew they were gone.
It was like that for the rest of the summer. It was like that every summer the six of them were together. Not that the days were always fun, most of them weren't, but they did things, real things, and they never got caught.
In Ann Patchett's luminous new novel, Commonwealth, the children grow up, find loves and lives of their own, and remember their past. Patchett has a way of making the normal things in life, such as a neighborhood party in which the grown-ups become tipsy, the stuff of legend, the kind of story that helps define a family for itself.
That's befitting considering what happens with one of the children. Franny, the baby whose christening was celebrated, is a reader. She loves losing herself in books and is one of those naturally kind people who can consider the needs of others. Working as a cocktail waitress in a fancy Chicago hotel after law school doesn't click for her, Franny meets an author whose work she has adored. He is one of those older Eastern authors who lives on liquor and the adoration of young women. Leo Posen also is the kind of writer who appropriates what other people tell him. He calls Franny his muse. His novel, Commonwealth, extrapolated from the stories she tells him of those shared childhood summers, becomes a huge bestseller.
Franny feels used after she had been having the time of her life. This becomes even more true when they "escape" to the summer house of a famous actress who wants a role in the film that will surely be made of this novel, and houseguests descend, and one sibling shows up unexpectedly.
As with many contemporary novels, describing the basic outline of the story makes it sound dire. But it's not that kind of story. The older they grow, the more supportive they are, not out of guilt or obligation, but because that's who they are. And they are supportive across the generations and blending of families.
There are some twists, one major tragedy and a lot of redemption. There is an interesting twist on Chekhov's admonition to writers about what happens when a certain object is introduced in a story. The last sentence of the novel, belonging to Franny, is a delight. Most of the characters have endearing moments, but Franny is a special character. She's pretty much become my grown-up Jo March.
Patchett knows how to make the mundane real and magical. There is one point where magic realism comes in, but it is used to bring peace and solace, which are the hallmarks of the final third of the novel. In other hands, some characters would have blamed others or themselves for things that happened. But these are characters who know that life is to be lived, for its own sake.
©2016 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Review and reprinted with permission