Wednesday, March 22, 2017

En Famille

Imagine a gatecrasher comes to your party uninvited and he ends up 'stealing' your wife. Stealing is clearly not the right word as you cannot steal a person. As it so happens, the uninvited guest steals a moment with the hostess and the demographic of two different families have to be reconfigured.

Commonwealth  written by Ann Patchett is about children growing up in a blended family.

The book opens in 1960s Los Angeles.

Fix Keating does not know who Bert Cousins is when he shows up at his younger daughter’s christening party. Fix is a local cop while Bert is a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Although they barely know each other, Cousins goes to the christening party to escape from  howling kids and his pregnant wife , Teresa. He arrives with gin at the christening party and ends up kissing Beverly Keating when he is totally drunk on gin and orange juice. They divorce their spouses and move from California to Virginia. Consequently the six kids from their previous marriages end up shuttling from coast to coast every summer. As we follow the Keating and Cousins children, their stories come into focus.  Bert has Cal , Holly, Jeanette and Albie while Fix has Caroline and Franny.
Coffee in a wine glass

In her 20s, Franny Keating has an affair with Leo Posen, a famous writer who ends up writing a best seller based on Franny’s stories about growing up with her siblings.

The story spans five decades and it is like a jigsaw puzzle, the readers get to piece together the story from fragmented memories of the Keating girls and the Cousins children.

But Caroline and Franny were not glad they were home. They were not glad at all. It was in this battered state that the Keating girls returned to Arlington to be reunited with their step siblings.

Holly was certainly friendly. She hopped up and down and actually clapped her hands when the girls came through the door. She said she wanted to put on another dance recital in the living room this summer. But Holly was also wearing Caroline’s red T-shirt with the tiny white ribbon rosette at the neck, which her mother had made Caroline put in the Goodwill bag before she left because it was both faded and too small. Holly was not the Goodwill.'

 Ann Patchett  tells the story in a  succinct style with vivid description for each scene and the story flows in a nonchalant and existentialist manner. 

ALMOST TWO WEEKS  after Franny had so miraculously deduced that Leo Posen’s room number was 821, and had gotten him to that room and gotten herself out of the hotel without anyone’s being the wiser, she got a phone call at the bar. Ten minutes past six and every table was full, every barstool taken .People stacked up behind the people in the chairs , drinks in hand , laughing and talking too loudly while hoping that a seat would open up. One of the other waitresses, the girl named Kelly who had the ex-husband and the child , put her hand on the small of Franny’s back and nearly touched her lipsticked lips to Franny’s ear while whispering to her . Everything these people did was intimate, even the delivery of messages. “ Phone call,” she said, her voice slipping beneath the din.

Though it is an ordinary tale about ordinary people, Ann Patchett  click is good in painting characters and in her subtlety , it shows that nobody is completely bad and the characters evolve as they age.  Through the female characters, she aptly conveys  how a woman’s hopes about life have been slowly dashed in middle-age. She is insightful and humorous in her eloquent narrative.

Often there may be bitter rivalry between siblings, they do share a common past where they each remember things differently. If they could just grow out of the sibling rivalry and let go of  the memories of the past that hurt them  , they might find a deep bond in their shared past.

I first read Ann Patchett's memoir " This is the story of a Happy Marriage". She writes with such ease in capturing small moments in life just like how she tells the story in Commonwealth.

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