Ann Patchett’s new novel is an American family saga involving six children, 50 years and too many coincidences to count. The premise is straight out of John Updike — a writer she admires — but her eye is on free love’s fallout, not its thrills. As the title hints, she’s interested in the larger family units that itchy-footed spouse-swappers inadvertently create when they do the dirty on their kin.
It opens with Bert, a father of three with another baby on the way, sneaking a kiss from Beverly, a married woman hosting a christening party for her second child, Frances. They’re drunk and it’s the Sixties; eventually Beverly ditches her husband, Fix, a Los Angeles cop, to set up home with Bert on the other side of the country — an idea that palls when she’s lumbered with his kids every summer.
Apparently Commonwealth draws on Patchett’s own family, and its structure, perhaps conveniently, avoids her having to inspect the cast’s motives too closely. She fast-forwards and rewinds at random through a half-century time span: the chapter straight after the christening party shows Fix having chemotherapy in his eighties with middle-aged Franny (baby Frances) at his bedside.
Franny makes the novel tick. She’s working as a cocktail waitress in 1980s Chicago when her favourite writer, Leo Posen, turns up asking for a scotch and a hand back to his hotel room. Franny obliges — her work get-up makes her look like ‘the music-video version of the Catholic schoolgirl she’d once been’ — but it’s the subsequent pillow talk about her stepbrothers (one dead tragically early, the other a delinquent with a history of arson) that does most to get Leo’s juices flowing. No small strife ensues when he reignites his career by putting Franny’s stories into a novel… called Commonwealth.
Patchett’s voice is warm and wise: as children, Franny and her sister Caroline are ‘connected by neither love nor mutual affinity but by a very small bathroom that could be entered from the bedroom on either side’. And there are some cracking scenes — the pick being a summer holiday in 1971 when Bert’s 12-year-old son Cal pinches his gun (and gin) with help from Caroline, proudly schooled in lock-picking by her LAPD pa.
But why the corny novel-within-a-novel stuff? Patchett seems keen for us to know she’s aware just how delicate an undertaking it is to write about people who might recognise themselves. She’s been burned before: when she wrote about her friend Lucy Grealy, in 2004’s Truth & Beauty, Grealy’s sister called her a ‘grief thief’. The force of Commonwealth’s ending relies on a similar argument in favour of privacy (not what you expect from a writer mining her own family history). If Patchett doesn’t settle the question of whether Leo Posen is a vampire, she nonetheless makes her point: for every memoirist pilloried for a toxic tell-all, there’s a gazillion novelists whose violations only their victims know.