One small decision can change everything, reverberating for decades to come. That is the central theme of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, her sprawling family saga which tracks the members of two different families that come together and fall apart, beginning in the early 1960s.
The fateful decision was made by Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Wanting to escape from his own large family, he opts to crash a christening party he’d heard about in passing, bringing a large bottle of gin as a gift. The child in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his movie-star-gorgeous wife, Beverly. An encounter between Bert and Beverly leads to a kiss, and the next thing you know, Beverly and Bert have left their respective spouses for each other, complicating the lives of six young kids (her two, his four). There is a move to Virginia, the commonwealth of the title, and a death that shakes the families’ world.
There’s no denying that Commonwealth is a beautifully-written book, with lots of perceptive things to say about families, aging, love, and the randomness of life, but I sometimes found myself wishing I’d drawn a family tree as I read, because there are a lot of characters to keep track of: Fix and Beverly, Bert and his first wife Teresa, their offspring, plus a gaggle of spouses, in-laws, stepchildren and lovers. Did there really have to be so many children? I would mutter as I tried to remember which kid came from which parents. The book demands attentive reading, as it does not follow a linear timeline.
In the end, it just sort of stops (I was reading Commonwealth on an e-reader, so I was unaware of how many pages were left), and I had the sense that Patchett could have kept going for another hundred pages, filling in details of characters we hadn’t come to know as well as others. (Beverly’s eventual divorce from Bert and subsequent remarriage to her third husband is mentioned in passing fairly early on, but I had forgotten about it and was surprised to encounter that spouse in the book’s final chapter.) If you’re a Patchett fan and plan on reading this book, do so with a pen and paper next to you and create a list of characters; I’ll bet you’ll find yourself referring to it several times along the way.