Tuesday 16 January 2018

Patchett steps out of shadow of bloated American fiction with subtle family drama

Fiction: Commonwealth, Ann Patchett, Bloomsbury, hdbk, 322 pages, €24.99

Unshowy brilliance: Ann Patchett
Unshowy brilliance: Ann Patchett
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Linda Grant

In the early Sixties, Los Angeles cop Fix Keating and his wife Beverly hold a christening party for their baby daughter, Franny. An uninvited guest, district attorney Albert Cousins, arrives at the teetotal gathering with a large bottle of gin, causing Fix to be sent out to buy tonic water and more ice. While Fix is out, Cousins meets Beverly in the kitchen. He knows he shouldn't make a pass, but "as the drinks stacked up he told himself there were larger forces at work". Later, he kisses her in the baby's room. The kiss breaks up the two marriages and fuses six children into what a later age would call a "blended family".

Fifty years later, when the errant couples are old, dead or dying, the effects of being stepsisters and brothers has become the story of these kids' lives, one shared with others outside the family. As a result, the story no longer entirely belongs to them.

As Ann Patchett shows in Commonwealth, her seventh novel, the new configuration of the family is one that involves confusion about which stepmother the hospital means when it rings you up.

In post-war America, the family has become a loose commonwealth of the alliances that emerge from a series of shattered marriages; the Keatings and the Cousins will marry again, producing more step-siblings. Commonwealth manages to cover all this ground in only 322 pages, which used to be an average sort of length for a novel but now seems positively novella-like compared to the 800-page bloat of contemporary American fiction, in which every single sentence must perform a star turn and each character's mind is scraped clean for resonant thought. Patchett resists the temptation to inflate her subject with a background history lesson. She achieves the great novel of American domestic life with a spare hand and a demotic prose that seems to come from the mouths of her characters, even when they aren't speaking.

After the divorce, the Cousins move back to Virginia, Albert's home state. Albie, the baby of the two families, a perpetual nuisance, is drugged up with Benadryl by his older siblings to make him sleepy so they can abandon him. As a result, his brother, 15-year-old Cal, dies accidentally.

This death is central to the children's memory. None of them entirely recovers from it, particularly Albie. In her 20s, Fix's daughter Franny is working as a cocktail waitress in a hotel in Chicago when she meets Leon Posen, a man recognisably modelled on Saul Bellow, part of that much-divorced cohort of 20th-century American male novelists whose merging of fiction and autobiography licensed the raiding of family life for art. A five-year affair begins. Posen, who hasn't written a novel in 15 years and needs money to make his alimony payments to two previous wives, produces a bestseller based on what Franny has told him of the break-up of her parents' marriage and Cal's death.

In the middle of an excruciating weekend party, Albie arrives to confront his sister having just read the novel. Posen insists (like all scavenging writers) that "what she had told him was nothing but the jumping off point for his imagination. It wasn't her family. No one would see them[selves] there".

In the final pages, Patchett is asking what of herself and the lives of those around her should be given away to make fiction - and what should just be hugged close. Lacking all the tiresome bombast of her American contemporaries, her unshowy account of public and private stories addresses the great puzzle of what our lives are really made of.

I have been slow to warm to Ann Patchett, but this novel convinces me she's wiping the floor with her heftier competitors.

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