Chekhov is supposed to have said that if you show a loaded gun on stage, it has to go off. Ann Patchett's new novel, Commonwealth, is full of guns that don't fire.
Commonwealth is an unassuming book about the life of a family. But it prompts the kind of evaluations that books about the great and unfamiliar don't. It is the kind of book that makes you think not of great adventures or faraway places but your own modest choices, and crooked shots at forming a life that suits you. How to make a life? How to make a family? These are, after all, the real questions, the momentous choices. It is an existential book and an ordinary one. Because mostly, in life, guns don't go off.
"The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin," opens the novel. Cousins, a district attorney ("DAs were the guys who smoked your cigarettes because they were trying to quit"), shows up uninvited, trying to avoid howling kids and a pregnant wife at home. Drunk on gin and orange juice, he kisses Beverly Keating, the beautiful hostess ("That yellow dress."). They divorce their spouses and move from California to Virginia. The six kids from their previous marriages end up shuttling from coast to coast in a tangle of family bonds.
Families are ecosystems, changeable equations of dependence and anger, love and trust, stories and competing memories. These ties are complicated enough, but they are complicated further when Franny, one of the children, now grown, begins to date the novelist Leon Posen, a kind of Roth/Updike/Bellow figure. Posen turns her childhood into a bestselling novel called, yes, Commonwealth.
And so, Patchett's Commonwealth refutes the great lie that prefaces it: "Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental," that spell against litigation by pretending that stories spring out whole from writers' heads. Writers are gentle cannibals: If they didn't write from life, there would be no stories.
It's considered bad manners to mention a writer's biography in a book review, but it's hard not to think of Patchett's memoir of her friend Lucy Grealy, a writer who died of a heroin overdose, and how, after the book was published, Grealy's sister called her a "grief thief." One precious memory of her sister, she wrote, is "mine alone, one that I don't have to share with the hundreds of thousands of total strangers who think they understand Lucy through Ann Patchett's personal vantage point." Franny thinks something similar: a moment with her brother is made more precious because she didn't give it to Posen for his book. "She had needed to kept something for herself." That's how fiction often works — and we politely pretend it isn't — but Commonwealth makes the cost of such theft clear.
The first time I ever flew alone, I was reading Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. Nervous, I got to the gate early and sat down to read. The gate filled up, boarding began, the gate emptied, they called my name — I found out later — over the loud speakers, but I heard nothing until the snap of the gate door closing made me look up for the first time.
Commonwealth has none of Bel Canto's glamour — its guns, illicit romances, hostages, or beautiful opera singer. Even the sentences are quiet: ordinary, unpretentious, and snagless. But, even if it wouldn't make me miss a flight, it is a better book for being plain. "For the vast majority of the people on this planet, the thing that's going to kill them is already on the inside," says one character. In Commonwealth, Patchett shows that great drama isn't necessary. Guns and floods and fire and terrorists needn't kill us. Ordinary life will suffice.