Commonwealth is a traditional English term for a political community founded for the common good.
The term literally meant “common well-being”.
There is, however, another form of commonwealth. The ever-helpful Dictionary.com offers this alternate definition: a “self-governing, autonomous political unit…
There are at least two commonwealths in the novel Commonwealth by Ann Patchett. In one instance the term most likely refers to the Commonwealth of Virginia (technically designated as such) and in the other instance it could describe the relationship that develops among the children in the two blended families we meet in this novel. If you have watched You’ve Got Mail as many times as I have, then you remember the scene in Kathleen Kelly/Meg Ryan’s little bookshop where Joe Fox/Tom Hanks is trying to hide his identity. When one of the children with him reveals that she is the aunt of the much older Joe Fox and the other young child reveals that he is Fox’s brother, Tom Hanks says, “We are an American family.” Well here in Commonwealth we find another such non-nuclear American family.
The beautiful Beverly is married to a man named Fix Keating, who is a policeman. When his second child is born an uninvited DA, Albert Cousins, crashes the party and that ends up being the catalyst that brings about the destruction of two marriages. The problem is that Beverly is a parent who really is not suited to parenting and her second husband, the wife stealer DA, Bert, is almost a completely absent father. These two parents reside in Virginia. Fix and the wife of Bert Cousins, Teresa reside in California. There are six children. Carolyn and Franny are the children of Beverly and Fix. Cal, Holly, Jeannette, and Albie are the children of Bert and Teresa. After Beverly and Bert divorce their spouses and marry each other, Fix and Teresa both remarry but not to each other. So each child ends up with 3 sets of part time parents.
Two of the children, Carolyn and Franny live in Virginia and only visit California; the other four spend the school year in California and the summers in Virginia. It is difficult to keep these families straight when the children are young. Although each child has his or her own personality, I found it difficult to remember which child belonged to which parent.
The children have complicated emotional responses to their situation and to their natural and by-marriage siblings. But as they age they find that they become a sort of commonwealth of five and we learn who is who, so it is not necessary for readers to worry about those early confusions. There is, of course, a great tragedy that brings the children together in guilt. They are keeping a secret about what happened to the sixth child, which does not really get told until the parents are dying. In classic novels this would have been the key to deep psychological wounds in the children, but the tone of this novel is perhaps too superficial, or too modern, to go “there” in any meaningful way.
Ann Patchett is an excellent writer who knows how to tell a story but this story is just giving us details of a tale that is so common in modern life as to almost be cliché. I liked the children and some of the parents but the story is more a slice of life than any kind of social commentary. Do I think fiction has to be culturally relevant? Perhaps not, but novels that stand the test of time usually have a je ne sais quoi factor that raises them out of the ordinary. I enjoyed reading Commonwealth, but I am not sure that it will turn out to be a keeper.