'Commonwealth,' Ann Patchett's new novel, is a family affair

Patchett's latest novel – her most autobiographical to date – weaves a wry but compassionate tale of step-siblings forced to become family.

Commonwealth By Ann Patchett Harper 336 pp.

Ann Patchett has never worried about sticking to the old adage, "write what you know." The award-winning novelist ("Bel Canto" and "State of Wonder") has researched everything from opera to ichthyology to the Amazon, creating indelible stories along the way that have little to do with her life in Tennessee.

Last time around, though, she got personal with her excellent collection of essays, 2013's "This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage." Despite her nervousness about revealing so much about herself, Patchett writes, "no one seemed to care."

Her seventh novel, Commonwealth, also sticks closer to home.

Readers of "Happy Marriage" will recognize certain parallels: a beloved father who is an L.A. cop, a beautiful mother with a tumultuous second marriage, step-siblings who spend summer holidays together. But the result – unlike the book within a book that shares its name – does much more than put a fictional shading on real-life events.

"Commonwealth" opens when attorney Albert Cousins crashes Franny Keating's christening party with a giant bottle of gin – much to her dad, Fix's, consternation. And that's before Cousins kisses her mother, Beverly. In the aftermath of their instant attraction, two families are scrambled. Bert and Beverly move to Virginia, taking Franny and her sister, Caroline, away from their beloved dad and equally beloved state of California. The four Cousins children are forced to spend summers with their dad, so they and the Keating sisters spend weeks roaming the hot streets "like a pack of feral dogs."

"Here was the most remarkable thing about the Keating children and the Cousins children: they did not hate one another, nor did they possess one shred of tribal loyalty," Patchett writes about the new, universally loathed plans for summer vacations. "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."

By "parents," the kids don't mean Fix Keating or Teresa Cousins back in California, both of whom get their own chance in "Commonwealth" to tell their stories. They mean the perpetually absent Bert and Beverly, who is overwhelmed by dealing (or not dealing, as the case may be) with six children every summer, who are now somehow supposed to feel like family. The "Brady Bunch," this is not.

"When the six of them got together they looked more like a day camp than a family, random children dropped off on the same curb," Patchett writes. "There was very little evidence of their relation, even among those who were related by blood."

The five older kids soon realize that, if they drug the youngest, Albie, with his brother Calvin's Benadryl, they can do pretty much anything they want, including drinking and taking Bert's gun with them everywhere they go.

Patchett leapfrogs back and forth over five decades, shifting perspective from one member to another as she looks at what it means to be an American family. At the center of every spoke of plot is the tragedy that put an end to those summers. Different siblings have different recollections of what happened – which don't come together until the great American novelist Franny is dating decides to use her family's story to break a longstanding case of writer's block.

Patchett's wry humor gets deployed in episodes like the one in the Hamptons, where Franny takes stock of her relationship with the 30+-year-older Leo Posen.

“Other than the difference in their ages, and the fact that he had an estranged wife, and had written a novel about her family which in its final form made her want to retch even though she had found it nothing less than thrilling when he was working on it, Franny and Leo were great.”

But compassion and humanity are the overarching qualities of the book. In the "present," Franny and Caroline take Fix to the movie version of Leo's book. Franny, the reader, is desperate to collect all the stories she can before her ailing father dies. "This was the time she had, these were all the stories she was going to get," Patchett writes in a passage that will resonate with any reader who's lost a parent. "It was to give Marjorie [Fix's second wife] a break because it was Marjorie who did all the work, but more than anything it was to have a chance at the stories he was going to take with him."

Aside from Bert, who, let's face it, would rather worm his way into a party for a stranger's baby than spend an afternoon with his own kids, Patchett has a deep sense of empathy for her characters. In "Commonwealth" these wary strangers – who start out unwillingly mushed together by a betrayal – find that shared history and kindness aren't the worst foundations on which to build a family.

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