What wields more power than a kiss? A kiss is both a hello and goodbye, a beginning and an ending. A kiss inspires Peter to give Wendy the life-saving acorn button, and Romeo and Juliet to compare their lips to a pilgrim’s hands in prayer. In Ann Patchett’s “Commonwealth,” one kiss changes everything. Patchett, a Pen/Faulkner Award winner and co-owner of independent bookstore Parnassus Books, delivers complex characters whose lives feel remarkably real in her seventh novel, and her first hand at autobiographical fiction.
Following her heart for Beverly Keating changes the day they christen her youngest daughter, Frances; the day Bert Cousins squeezes oranges in her kitchen and kisses her in the nursery, gin on both their tongues. One kiss inspires Beverly to pack up her children and move from Southern California to Virginia, where every summer she finds herself with five children instead of two.
How does a woman reconcile putting her heart before the well-being of her family, taking oranges, and love, for granted? Maybe she has always been beautiful and so assumes she will always be loved. Maybe her children, who gain four siblings (and still eat oranges once a year when they visit their father), go unharmed. Maybe Beverly and Bert Cousins, who move to Virginia and leave their ex spouses in the land of citrus, serve as reminders that a love story, from another perspective, is also a broken heart: love is imperfect and sometimes impermanent
The affair between Beverly and Bert is only the prelude to a larger arc about six siblings, and the secrets hidden in the heat of childhood summers. This is a novel about carrying our stories in pockets, secreted like Tic-Tacs or individually wrapped Benadryl, until the day a hand reaches into the pocket and finds them gone—given away, distractedly. When an adult Frances has an affair with a reputable author years later, the entire family begins to wonder, do the stories of our lives belong to us, or are they commonwealth?
Patchett is a storyteller. Readers care about these characters, and can practically taste the gin, feel the kiss and the lust. Those sticky summers childhood summers become ours, their secrets are our secrets. With wit and warmth, and a little necessary tragedy, Patchett’s novel explores the human heart and the terrain of family.
According to Fix Keating, Beverly’s first husband and Frances’s father, the thing that kills us is already inside of us. What will kill us is already inside of us, alongside what enables us to live and love in the face of death and divorce and distant children, in the increasing current carrying us towards a conclusion that is both universal and unique to us. Our stories are inside us, and Patchett spools out a beautiful one.