Commonwealth begins with a christening party crashed by a man who brought a large bottle of gin because he didn't have a present. This momentous party ended marriages and a priest's career. In the next chapter the father of the christened baby is being attended as he has chemo by Franny, the woman that baby became. The lives of the four children of the gin-bearing man (Bert Cousins) and the two children of the hosts unfold in a non-chronological way. The six children spent some time during the summers together and had the joy and tragedy of neglectful parenting.
While the focus is on Franny, certain periods of the lives of the six children and their parents come to the fore. Some have just a brief chapter: Jeanette, married to a West African man, living in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn with their child as they (successfully) work and go to school; Holly finds a happy life in a small communal group living in the Swiss Alps dedicated to meditation. Their stories are gripping, dramatic, and appear to be effortlessly told. They come to life and inhabit our world for a time.
The story begins in Southern California, but after the fateful Christening party, the new couple (mother of the baby and the man with the gin) move to Northern Virginia. Bert's parents live in Charlottesville and that is the setting for some of the dramatic moments. The locations in this novel are many and widely scattered and in addition to those I've mentioned, there's the cocktail bar in the Palmer House in Chicago where Franny works and Torrance, California. Each location, like the characters, comes to life.
One striking coincidence that I encountered in this book involves the description of the sudden death of a minor character: "Sapna was sitting on the couch, the baby in her arms. She looked right at Kumar and said, 'It's the strangest thing.' Then she closed her eyes." I was thunderstruck as I remembered a description in a book I read recently, This Must Be the Place, when Daniel recounts the story his grandmother told of the death of his grandfather: They were in Ireland on their first vacation when he turned from the window and said, "I have the strangest feeling in my legs." He died instantly. And another oddity: both these books have characters named Calvin, a name I have not encountered much.
What a fine book this is.
Ann Patchett, Commonwealth, Harper, 2016, 336 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the UVa and public libraries.