In the final scene of Ann Patchett’s new novel, the narrator tells a story about herself and her younger half-brother, Albie, the family troublemaker, the one who, when he was growing up, no one could stand. In the end Albie turns out all right. But in this incident he’s a young teenager and the narrator, Franny, is only a few years older. One night, Franny realizes Albie is missing— usually, by that time he’s asked her to do his homework—and when she can’t hear him moving around in his room or watching TV she goes out looking for him. She walks a few blocks through the snow in each direction—all she has on is her school uniform with a sweatshirt over it—but he’s nowhere to be seen. Returning to the house, she glimpses his face behind a boxwood hedge. He’s found a hollowed out space between the bushes and the house where the overhang of the roof protects him and he can see everything but not be seen. She asks him to let her in. He raises an arm, she burrows in next to him, and there they sit, Albie, the terror of the family, with his arm around Franny, the kind one, and the two stay there wrapped in an old red sleeping bag until Franny can’t feel her feet anymore and they go in. At the moment of recall, Franny takes comfort in the fact that she’s never shared this memory with anyone. It belongs only to her and her half-brother. This is how the book ends.
There’s plenty of drama in Commonwealth—love and death and betrayal, a full spectrum of human experience and emotion—but nothing that goes to the heart of the book the way this scene does. It refers, I think, to the “wealth” of the title, the wealth of experience held in common by the six children of a blended family—two girls belonging to the mother, two girls and two boys to the father. Picking up where most novels leave off, Commonwealth is the story of what happens after two people who already have children with other spouses fall in love, get divorced, and marry each other. It turns out to be a richer, more interesting and complex story than the boy-meets-girl narrative we’re used to. In Commonwealth, once Cupid has shot his arrow—it takes two seconds—the novel splinters into several intertwined stories, chiefly those belonging to the children of the new family gestalt.
I loved it because it explained to me where a certain tone I’ve come to recognize in Patchett’s writing comes from—in it you hear a knowing, slightly abashed, acceptance of human frailty and misdoings. Both tone and the experience it’s based on are the result of being exposed, as Patchett herself was, at an early age and without warning, to the crimes and misdemeanors of adults, having suddenly to fend for herself in a drastically changed environment, becoming overnight not one of two children, but lost in a crowd of siblings most of whom are older than she.
Among other things, the novel allowed me to see, by contrast, how growing up as an only child in a stable environment had affected me. It showed me how my protected status at home let me go on existing inside an idealized picture of the world—my parents’ projection of the way things ought to be—long after other people my age had lost those kinds of illusions.
Franny, the main narrator of Commonwealth, along with all her brothers and sisters, loses her innocence and her naiveté early and for good. That loss, in Patchett’s writing, begets a deliciously wry and humorous view of existence, rueful and accepting, which comes through strongly in Franny’s touching and witty account of her five-year affair with a famous writer. I wished I had written it myself.
Because the point of view in Commonwealth shifts from parent to parent and sibling to sibling, we get a marvelously variegated picture of life among divorced and re-married parents and their children—some characters more appealing than others, some seeming to cause more than their fair share of suffering. But in every case, there’s plenty of ignorance and mistakes to go around, and—despite the hatred, the lies, the bickering, and the disappointments—plenty of love as well. That’s what makes the final scene so moving. When Albie, who has caused more trouble than all the other characters put together, reaches his arm out to his half-sister, it symbolizes the love that’s been there between and among them all, buried beneath life’s vicissitudes. By some mysterious process redemption appears at the end out of nowhere and takes everyone in, the reader included. You feel embraced. This is a generous, painful, and amusing book, and it tells the microscopic truth.~