Commonwealth: Coming Together after Breaking Apart

If ever there was a book to convince about why divorce isn’t great (in a non-didactic way), Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth is it.

I don’t posit this as a main theme of the novel or want to reduce a masterpiece of storytelling down to this statement, but it is something that ran through my head while following the lives of ten characters over five decades (6 children, 4 parents), so I want to explore that lens a bit.

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The first chapter takes you into the house of a California couple, Fix and Beverly Keating, who are hosting a christening party for their second daughter Franny. It’s a long scene in which the omniscient narrator weaves in and out of multiple house guests, interactions, and seemingly unimportant observations that set the stage for the rest of the story. It is a kiss between Beverly and a surprise guest, Bert Cousins, that sparks an affair and leads to the eventual dissolution of both Beverly’s and Bert’s marriages.

The scene basically ends with the kiss though. The next chapter picks up with Fix as an old man going to the hospital with Franny for a cancer check-up. We understand Beverly and Fix divorced long ago, and yet the effects of their split and the blended Keating-Cousins children that result from Beverly and Bert’s marriage are very much the thread of this ambitious book. Patchett is concerned with inciting incidents and the long, complicated aftermath.

The two Keating girls, Caroline and Franny, move with their mother and Bert to Virginia. Caroline makes no secret of being mad at her mother and wishes she could have stayed with her dad instead. Teresa keeps her four children (Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie) in California, but all six children come together in Virginia every summer when Bert gets his time with his kids, though ironically he never wants to spend any time with them. Beverly reflects on how all she ever wanted was her two daughters. Patchett’s decision to include the very real and mundane logistics of finding a chaperone for the four kids each summer on a cross-country flight is enough to make you feel sorry for everyone involved.

Sadness, blame, guilt, resignation, and regret all surface through this book, stemming from that one illicit kiss—that one action with a thousand consequences.

In a similar way of “like mother, like daughter,” Franny, as a twenty-something, gets involved with a famous author, Leon Posen, who’s married. Just like the opening scene of the christening party, Patchett vividly shows you that first encounter between Leon and Franny, and that scene is enough to fill-in-the-blanks about where their relationship goes. It goes into Franny recounting her family story to Leon who turns it into a bestseller and forces her family to revisit it all over. Again, an action with a thousand consequences.

Patchett primarily tells the story through the lives of the six children uneasily united in their disillusionment with their parents. The four parents get space too, but the bulk is the children’s stories told non-chronologically. There isn’t an obvious main character, but Franny would be it as Patchett spends more time on her and gives her the last word.

My only disappointment in reading the novel is that it wasn’t longer. I wasn’t ready to move on to what another child was up to in his/her adult life because I wanted to stay with the current character. An author who can create that desire in the reader has achieved something remarkable for a number of reasons:

  1. The reader doesn’t tend to stay with flat or perfect characters. Each of the children are recognizable but not clichés—in other words, human. They surprise you, especially their movement from childhood to adulthood, and they each have a good mix of likeable and unlikeable qualities.
  2. Patchett understands that certain siblings in large, blended families get overlooked, especially in childhood (e.g. Jeannette and Albie). By giving attention to all of them, Patchett shows each person is interesting, even if they’re not all “doing” interesting things.
  3. The reader can witness a tragic incident in all of their lives from multiple perspectives, highlighting the various ways guilt and grief manifest.

In closing, I want to revisit my opening statement about this book showing how messy and unattractive divorce is. The book also shows six children picking up the pieces of their parents’ decisions and finding their way through the brokenness together. If ever there was a book to convince about the benefit of having siblings, Commonwealth is it.

Franny gave her sister a tired smile. “Oh, my love,” she said. “What do the only children do?”

“We’ll never have to know,” Caroline said.

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Ten Stories, One Outline

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina goes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That sentence very much came to mind when reading Outline by Rachel Cusk, one of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.

Outline

The novel is a series of ten conversations that the almost invisible narrator (who remains nameless until very late in the book) has with friends and strangers when she’s in Athens to teach a summer writing course.

The ten conversations (one for each chapter) consist of all eloquent and loquacious speakers who tell the narrator the outline of their life story. She rarely interjects, rarely gets asked questions in response, rarely reveals much of her story.

All we know is she is a divorced writer with two sons who lives in London:

I said that I lived in London, having recently moved from the house in the countryside where I had lived alone with my children for the past three years, and where for the seven years before that we had lived together with their father. It had been, in other words, our family home, and I had stayed to watch it become the grave of something I could no longer definitively call either a reality or an illusion.

That quote gives you an example of Cusk’s sparse yet penetrating prose that hits you with a melancholic punch to the gut. And that’s just one sample. While there are some funny moments in the novel (usually in the form of wry observations), overall, it’s quite a depressing book.

Each conversation discusses a relationship and, most of the time, it’s a failed marital one. I’m wracking my brain trying to think of one conversation that depicts two people content in marriage. Nope. Ryan, a fellow teacher at the summer school, is the only character who is currently married, and even the way he describes his relationship sounds less than inspiring, to say the least:

They shared the work of the kids and the house—his wife was no martyr, as his mother had been. She went off on her own holidays with her girlfriends and expected him to take care of everything in her absence: when they gave one another freedoms, it was on the understanding that they would claim those same freedoms themselves. If it sounds a little bit calculated, Ryan said, that doesn’t worry me at all. There’s a business aspect to running a household. It’s best if everyone’s honest right at the start about what they’re going to need, to be able to stay in it.

Elaine Blair, referring to the book as “autobiographical fiction” in the New Yorker, sums up the author’s attitude towards relationships well when she writes: “Lovers may find reasonably comfortable arrangements together, Cusk suggests, but in one way or another each will be diminished by them.”

I was impressed with Cusk’s ability to put a cast of characters down on the page so quickly and effectively, and then even more impressed at how many different ways she told their unhappiness (that’s when the Tolstoy quote came to mind). Yet after about the third conversation that barely raised its head above cynical water, I started feeling sad for the author. I remember thinking as I was reading it, “This book could have only been written by someone who’s divorced.”

I admit that because I’m still a newlywed, my view of marriage isn’t as nuanced as someone in their mid-forties. But the way relationships are portrayed in the book implies there is no beauty or flourishing or amplification in marriage, which I don’t think is accurate.

What we get in Outline are ten monologues. You can’t really call them conversations if only one person is doing the talking. The same thing could be said of this book. All these monologues can be summarized with some variant of “relationships are disappointing.” Where’s the other side to the story?

What was so fascinating for me about the novel is the psychological/sociological undertones about how we tell stories. Each character is obviously selective and subjective with the outline they offer of their lives. And so the reader is also playing detective as we go along—is what we’re hearing true? Especially when it’s filtered indirectly through the voice of a detached and depressed narrator?

Perhaps the biggest revelation I came to at the end of the book is that I didn’t particularly care for the narrator. Her story was so faintly sketched there was no substance there to hold on to. When she summarized her response to an elderly Greek bachelor who made a pass at her, saying, “I was not interested in a relationship with any man, not now and probably not ever again” and that she’s “trying to find a different way of living in the world,” one that’s “unmarked by self-will,” I either didn’t believe her or didn’t get the sense that she was any happier for her efforts. Even though we know little about her, it becomes more and more evident that she is grieving the aftermath of her marriage but is she grieving it well?

She does need to talk and process what’s happened, it’s just too bad the people she chose (or chose her) reinforce her own disappointment.