Commonwealth is a family saga spanning 50 years and three generations. The story begins innocently enough with an ordinary christening party that gets a bit sloppy when Bert Cousins shows up uninvited with a bottle of gin. The afternoon of drinking leads to a couple of extra-marital kisses between Bert and the hostess Beverly. This leads to a couple of divorces. The six kids from the two ruined marriages and Bert and Beverly’s new marriage, spend the rest of their childhood years going back and forth between L.A. to Virginia.
Franny and Caroline Keating – as different as night and day – both follow in the footsteps of their own dad, Fix, a nice guy, a cop, who went to an undistinguished law school by night, but could never pass the bar exam. In a fashion, they also follow in the footsteps of their new stepfather, Bert, a self-absorbed lawyer from a wealthy family, who graduated at the top of his class at UVA. Caroline becomes a successful attorney. Franny, who should have been an English major anyway, ends up dropping out of law school after her third year.
The four Cousins kids, Cal, Holly, Jeanette, and Albie, are even more different from one another than the two Keating girls. They don’t follow in anyone’s footsteps but their own. They resent their father and new step-mother and they especially dislike having to spend three summer months with them in Virginia. Nevertheless, they form something like sibling relationships with the Keating girls, partly through the common bond of their disappointment in Bert and Beverly. Gradually, they develop alliances and devoted relationships.
There is a death in the novel that deeply affects all the characters and allows a mystery to weave itself into the structure of the story. In a way, it is the glue that binds the characters, no matter how far flung and different their lives as the years pass.
Ann Patchett is a great writer. She develops marvelous characters and situations that force unlikely people to form a kind of community. She tells this story with a sharp eye for detail, and she is generous with her empathy, wisdom, and humor.