I heard Ann Patchett interviewed about her new novel on NPR. Having just blogged about my adopted state of Minnesota in Wintering (see previous post), I was drawn to the possibility of blogging about my home state since Commonwealth takes place partly in Virginia.
As far as the opportunity to enjoy another familiar setting, Commonwealth was a disappointment. The sense of place is as absent in Commonwealth as it is present in Wintering. In addition, Commonwealth is not as compelling or well written as Wintering. It's a fairly commonplace, popular-style novel without great distinction. However, it has enough redeeming features to make it worth a read. I read it all in one day.
One thing I confirmed for myself is how much I despise reading about drugs and alcohol, especially when kids are involved. I almost stopped reading The Goldfinch (see Oct. 2014) for exactly that reason.
Like Wintering Commonwealth is a web of multiple storylines, flash-forwards, flashbacks, and memories that challenge the reader to keep track of characters, settings, and chronology. Like Wintering it's a family drama, but Commonwealth keeps its focus on just two generations. It begins with Franny Keating’s christening party and ends with Franny, as a wife and mother, remembering a private moment with her younger stepbrother when she was an adolescent.
In between, Franny's parents divorce, her mother moving to Virginia with her new husband, her father staying in California where Franny was born. Franny and her older sister Caroline live with their mother, spending just two weeks each summer with their Dad, but their step-father's four children spend the whole summer in Virginia with their Dad, allowing for extended time as a blended family of eight.
Neither parent of this blended family is what I would consider very responsible in the child supervision department, and so readers are subjected to extended periods of holding our breath wondering if these mischievous, risk-taking, unsupervised kids are going to survive their multiple misadventures, which involve a gun, drugs, alcohol, and what I would consider generally dangerous behavior, especially for their young ages.
As it turns out a tragedy does eventually occur, and, as if divorce and disruption were not enough to scar these young lives, this tragedy continues to haunt them. Nevertheless, as we watch them grow into adulthood, it is amazing how well they turn out, despite some of their continuing misadventures.
So, we have the coming of age story of six young innocents, one of whom doesn't reach adulthood, living through their parents' messy lives, plus their own failures and missteps, five of them at least coming to terms, each in their own way, with the dark side of life, finally achieving some semblance of responsible maturity, even caring for their flawed, aging parents and step-parents.
More than a group coming of age story, though, Commonwealth makes a positive case, in the end, for the modern family, with all its complicated relationships, adultery, divorce, remarriage, etc., and the human resiliency, not just to survive, but to thrive. That modern family includes, not only the blended family, but also the multicultural family, as Franny marries an East Indian and one stepsister marries an African. The only thing missing is a gay couple.
What makes Commonwealth truly distinctive though is another storyline, in which Franny meets a popular author, falls in love, and, in need of reassurance from this man she has long admired, shares her family's personal story, which the author proceeds to turn into a successful novel. When her younger stepbrother coincidentally reads the novel and recognizes their family, he feels betrayed. Their private lives have become fodder for literary gain. A confrontation ensues and while Franny's relationship with the author does not survive, her relationship with her stepbrother and the rest of her family does, testifying to the strength of family ties that bind, even when they're not based on blood relations.
In her NPR interview Ann Patchett revealed that Commonwealth is based on her own experience growing up in a blended family. Thus the sub-plot of fiction based on personal experience becomes a meta-commentary on the ethics of the autobiographical novel, of exploiting the lives of real people for artistic purposes, and of invading privacy in general. It is curious how self-referential Commonwealth thus becomes, especially since the fictional famous author, for all his arguments on behalf of imagination over documentation, emerges as less sympathetic than the aggrieved family members.
Without presuming to speculate on the significance of this storyline to Ann Patchett's own experience publishing a novel based on her personal family life, I will simply note how it gives Commonwealth a twist that raises it above the merely pedestrian popular novel.
To conclude, I'll just comment on the title. I was struck, of course by the reference to the "Commonwealth" of Virginia, but in a larger sense the novel captures the shared lives, relationships, and ties that bind; the shared history and shared guilt of extended, blended family; and it reminds us that it is the sharing, not so much what is shared, that constitutes the wealth.