A stolen kiss at a christening alters the course of two families’ lives in Ann Patchett’s latest, a disarmingly intimate portrait of love and loss and reconfiguration that unfolds over five far-reaching decades.
In the dim bedroom of a Los Angeles ranch house rowdy with day-drunk party guests, district attorney Bert Cousins decides that his instant chemistry with the “bone-crushingly beautiful” Beverly Keating must be fated—never mind the baby she’s holding or his own young children and pregnant wife at home. And so he moves in for the fateful kiss, blowing both their marriages apart to make Beverly the next Mrs. Cousins. Thrown together in this suddenly reordered world, the two boys and four girls of the newlyweds’ combined brood waste no time forming their own wolf pack, a stealth rebellion made easy in the Mad Men era of laissez-faire parenting. But too much freedom can have ugly consequences, as the Keating-Cousinses come to learn painfully—and they’ve hardly moved past the aftermath of their upbringing when youngest sister Franny’s affair with a renowned, much-older novelist inadvertently exposes their private struggles in a glaringly public way.
So-called domestic fiction might sound like low-hanging fruit for an author whose previous works have wrestled with thorny issues of medical ethics (State of Wonder), race (Run), and geopolitics (Bel Canto), often in impressively exotic settings. But Commonwealth hardly reads like a literary stepchild; if anything, the emotional intelligence of Patchett’s storytelling here feels warmer and richer and more resonant than anything she’s done before.