By Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 322 pages.
A few weeks ago, I noted in a Richard Russo review that he was one of the few writers whose work has never disappointed me. Ann Patchett was on that list as well–until I read her highly touted but overrated Commonwealth.
One of the most quoted passages in literature comes from Anna Karenina. Tolstoy wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Patchett's contribution to this adage is to modernize Tolstoy by showing us an unhappy blended family, largely through the eyes of six stepsiblings. It's a sprawling novel that covers 50 years, but opens in 1971, when a lawyer named Bert Cousins crashes a christening party at the home of Fix Keating, a cop he barely knows. Soon, though, it's not baby Franny that transfixes Bert–it's Fix's gorgeous wife, Beverly. Patchett recounts this very unorthodox christening in a 32-page opening sequence that sets the table for the dissolution of both the Keating and Cousins marriages and the knitting of the two Keating and four Cousins offspring into two dysfunctional units–the one headed by Fix in California, the other by Bert in Virginia. Tragedy and unhappiness eventually pass to a third generation–along with reflection, guilt, and hints of minor redemption.
Commonwealth has been praised to the skies–perhaps because we're supposed to think that anything that deals with relationships is automatically weighty. Sorry, but I was bored out of my skull. The opening sequence put me in mind of the kind of literature Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) used to write and I tried (and failed) to appreciate: the mundane as high drama. Patchett's novel is semi-autobiographical. I don't wish to belittle her personal pain, but there is often a tendency for individuals to think that their families are more fascinating than they really are. Tolstoy is so often quoted because his remark rings true, but you'll note that he did not say that every unhappy tale needed to be told.
If anyone could make us care about the Keating and Cousins clans, it would be Patchett. She is an enormously talented writer and there are passages of Commonwealth that are so finely crafted that one can't help but admire them. The problem isn't the prose; it's the material. I get her riff on commonwealth: Virginia the old ideal of gentility and manners, California the golden land of opportunity and reinvention. I also get that Virginia is a metaphor for when appearances are more performance than substance, and that California reminds us that the things that glisten are frequently gilded, not gold. I'll even concede that it was clever to situate the Keating-Cousins drama within that framework. Perhaps we could even see Commonwealth as a sort of unmasking: families as they are rather than the postcards they're supposed to be.
Okay, but I simply didn't care. Put plainly, there wasn't enough virtue in the characters to make me feel that they deserved much happiness; nearly all of them were consistently unlikable. Where I was supposed to see family dynamics, I saw narcissism; where I was supposed to empathize with the characters, I felt deep impatience of the "Oh-for-heaven's-sake-get-over-yourself" variety. It returns, in my view, to that Mansfield-like opening. Tolstoy drew us into the not-so-nice Oblonsky/Karenina families the same way that Edith Wharton did with the Archer/Olenska romance in The Age of Innocence–by sketching characters with enough external glamour and uniqueness to make them memorable. Ms. Patchett has done this in the past–the inmates in the home for unwed mothers in The Patron Saint of Liars; the thrown-together hostages of Bel Canto; the gay necromancer in The Magician's Assistant; the tropical locales of State of Wonder….
I suppose one could read Commonwealth as a thoroughly contemporary novel and praise its verisimilitude. Yet its central banality remains. Count me among those who read to be transported somewhere far more interesting than suburbia or that den of mediocrity and self-pity called the American middle class. If I wanted to contemplate ordinary misery, I'd muse upon scenes from own biography.