COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

The parents might take it upon themselves to completely destroy their families, letting lust take over, and there are plenty of stories out there of the dysfunction of blended families. But it doesn't always have to be this way. In this novel, the six young children from two families bond together extraordinarily well, taking advantage of their parents', at times, detached parenting. It certainly is not an easy ride for any of them, but those early formative experiences carry them into adulthood, and never let them forget that they really are a family.

It all begins in Los Angeles in the 1960s at the christening of Franny Keating. Bert Cousins, is a lawyer in the local DA's office, Franny's dad Fix Keating is a police officer. Bert turns up uninvited, wanting to escape his own domestic bliss of three young children and a pregnant wife. He instantly falls in love with Beverly, Franny's mother. Eventually Beverly leaves Fix, her two young daughters, LA and moves to Virginia with Bert. The six children from the two sets of parents move between LA and Virginia to see their absent parent, inevitably the children build their own close bonds and friendships between each other. Much of this closeness arises of summer holidays together in Virginia, initially forced to spend all their days together while Beverly and Bert are otherwise engaged, and over time, forging their alliances with each other as siblings are wont to do.

Tragedy ensues, and despite the little hints dropped in during the early part of the story, the full facts of what happens is only slowly disclosed as the book goes on. Each child feels their own particular guilt in the event, but as often happens when the words is seen through children's eyes, the fact is quite different from the child's perception of it.

Most of the story is told through Franny's eyes. She is a bright girl, but drops out of law school, unable to meet her own high expectations. While working in a bar she meets a famous author, Leon Posen, with whom she lives for some years. During this time she tells the story of her childhood, which he then publishes in novel form. Unsurprisingly it opens old wounds in the now adult children, but also renews those childhood bonds and relationships.

Ann Patchett is a fabulous writer. Bel Canto is one of my all time favourites, and I loved State of Wonder. I am not sure if this is in quite the same league as these two previous novels, but it is still a most satisfying read filled with interesting and diverse characters. I particularly love how she depicts the six children, all intensely unhappy at having to spend holidays with each, and then how over the summer the pecking order evolves as it does with children, they find their unique little niche in their grouping. And then how these strands remain tight years later, even though life does get in the way of those bonds. The imperfection of family life, so well done. 

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