Critical Assessment

“Ms. Patchett has long explored the awkwardness, pain and grace that come when total strangers are forced into unexpected alliances. This theme found its fullest expression in her 2001 best seller, Bel Canto, whose glamorous characters were taken hostage at a birthday party. But a far more common form of involuntary companionship — which doesn’t involve guns but often feels like it does — is the blended family. Tolerating your own kin is hard enough. Tolerating someone else’s is harder by a coefficient of 10.

Commonwealth spans over 50 years, and the stories of how these children move uncertainly into adulthood — and how their parents adjust to the misfortunes that accrue — are painfully beautiful. (I went from bristling to weeping at 3 a.m.) Escaping the cage of your childhood can be one of the sublime miracles of growing up, though it sometimes requires more tools than the average jailbreak.

“The questions “Commonwealth” raises are ultimately counterfactual, philosophical: Who might we be if our parents hadn’t made catastrophic choices, and we hadn’t responded catastrophically to them? Maybe better-adjusted people with easier days and nights. But maybe the poorer for it.”

Jennifer Senior, “In Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth,’ Knotting and Unknotting the Ties That Bind,” The New York Times, September 7, 2016.

First Excerpt

“The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin. Fix was smiling when he opened the door and he kept smiling as he struggled to make the connection: it was Albert Cousins from the district attorney’s office standing on the cement slab of his front porch. He’d opened the door twenty times in the last half hour–to neighbors and friends and people from church and Beverly’s sister and all his brothers and their parents and practically an entire precinct worth of  cops–but Cousins was the only surprise.

“Albert Cousins handed over the bag and Fix looked inside. It was a bottle of gin, a big one. Other people brought prayer cards or mother-of-pearl rosary beads or a pocket-sized Bible covered in white kid with gilt-edged pages. Five of the guys, or their five wives, had kicked in together and bought a blue enameled cross on a chain, a tiny pearl in the center, very pretty, something for the future.”

 

Second Excerpt

“No one was surprised that there was a gun in the car, even though Cal was the only one who’d known it was there, and he only knew about it because he’d been nosing around in the glove compartment a few days before while Beverly was in the grocery store and he’d found it, proving yet again that sometimes a person just has to look. What surprised all of them though, Cal included, was that Bert had left it in the car. It made them think he must have another gun in his motel room. Bert liked a gun in his briefcase, in the nightstand, in the drawer of his office desk. He liked to talk about the criminals he had put away, and how a person never knew, and how he had to protect his family, and how he wasn’t going to let the other guy make the first move, but really it was just that Bert liked guns.

“The mesmerizing item was the gin. The parents might enjoy a drink every now and then but it wasn’t like they had to take it with them. They had never seen gin in the car before. That was something special.

” ‘You know you can’t take it,’ Holly said, looking back to the door of the parents’ room. She was talking about both the gun and the gin.

“‘Just in case something happens,’ Cal said. He put the gun in the brown paper sack along with the candy bars and Cokes. Jeanette had taken her Coke and two candy bars out of the bag already and put them in her purse. She took the bottle from her brother and started working on the seal, teasing it loose so gently that it finally gave itself up to her little fingernails in a single replaceable piece. She put the seal in her coin purse and gave the bottle back to her brother. They they set out for the lake, Caroline carrying the map.”