Ann Patchett’s a big favourite around Bookmunch Towers – I mean, as well as whacking it out of the literary ball-park for so many years with the likes of Bel Canto and The Magician’s Assistant, she runs an independent bookshop: it’s pretty much impossible not to love her, right? Though her books are ostensibly quite different – opera singers held captive; bereaved teen athletes; scientists in the jungle fighting Big Pharma – what she returns to again and again is what connects us and yokes us to one another, whether that’s the forced intimacy of a hostage situation, a romantic relationship, or the complications of family. And it’s the latter (done previously to great effect in Run) that she draws upon again in Commonwealth, an intricate tracing of two families bound together over a fifty year period by divorce and remarriage – the titular commonwealth comprising the six children thrown together by their parents’ entanglements.
When attorney Bert Cousins gatecrashes the christening party of Fix Keating’s youngest daughter, Franny, he meets for the first time Fix’s wife, Beverley, who soon becomes his own second wife. Fix, a cop, has two girls, Caroline and Franny, who move with Bert and Beverley to Virginia, spending just two weeks a year back in California with their dad, while Bert’s own four kids (Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie) stay in California with their mother, Teresa, and travel to Virginia each year to spend the summer with their otherwise-estranged father and step-mother. With us so far? Excellent. Bert and Beverley don’t stay the distance, Beverley later marrying again and inheriting a whole clutch of new step-kids and –grandkids, and Fix, too, eventually remarries. All but one of the original kids grow up, and what happened to the lost one is the crux of the book insofar as it’s the one event none of the extended clan can entirely move away from. Meanwhile Franny, whose christening party kick-started everything, gets involved with a once-famous older novelist who latches onto her family history as his chance at a comeback…
The novel doesn’t trace the families’ trajectories sequentially; rather, the chapters hop about in time, zooming us forward to Fix’s old age, back to Franny’s twenties as a cocktail waitress, on again to Holly’s life in a Swiss Zen centre, back to Albie’s teenage arsonist years, but always returning to the kids’ thrown-together summers under Bert and Beverley’s lax supervision and building to the book’s central tragedy. Patchett manages this back-and-forth with great skill: the various characters’ stories are equally engaging as separate threads and as part of the cumulative unfolding of the overall plot. What we particularly liked, though, was how she dealt with the portrayal of families sundered by infidelity and trauma. While what happens to these people is awful (divorce, death, illness), Patchett doesn’t make this into a so-called trauma narrative; they’re affected by, but not defined by, these events, and the book gives us a view of their expanded lives. This is a book that asks what happens to us after disaster (and disaster, and disaster, and disaster), and so it’s not about loss or faithlessness, but about survival, and not impoverished survival with everyone’s resources depleted to exhaustion, but survival as renewal. Everyone gets up and gets on. We’ve heard Patchett criticised because she doesn’t really deal in villainy – her bad guys turn out no worse than the flipside of your run-of-the-mill fucked-up good guy – but that’s a pretty reductive criticism; what she does is illuminate the tragedies of everyday life, where the good/bad dichotomy is muddied by actual personality. And this is true here – even the least sympathetic dudes (Bert the wife-stealer; the desperate and opportunistic novelist) are rounded out so that we can’t entirely hate them. And, yeah, drama lies in conflict – but conflict doesn’t mean pistols at dawn, and Patchett’s brand of conflict, whereby people fight and rant and sort their shit out and help each other out, is the sort of real-life conflict that actually resonates with readers. And that’s the appeal of this book: isn’t it how many of our lives turn out?
The other factor, of course, in a family of lawyers and cops, is guilt: who’s to blame for what happened? Ought they to carry that blame? Ought they all to hold grudges or forgive? Are children culpable? Are parents, both absent and present? What are the limits of love? What happens when you’ve been forced outside the family tragedy (that’s Albie’s beef with his siblings) and to what extent do you have rights over your own story when it’s also a family story? Whose account is right and does it matter? So as well as a captivating and layered account of a couple of families’ lives, the book’s also a fascinating look at the idea of family history as both public and private testimony.
And above all that, you’ve got Patchett’s own engrossing storytelling, her pitch-perfect dialogue, her attention to detail (Fix the cop teaching his kids to pick locks) and her refusal to romanticise or pigeonhole people’s relationships as they develop over time.
Any Cop?: It’s a page-turner that should appeal to literary readers as well as people just after a good solid read. Honestly: you can’t lose with Patchett.