A Death In the Family Inspires Two Works of Art

Portrait by Heidi Ross Portrait of author Ann Patchett in her bookstore, Parnassus Books, in Nasville on 15 April 2016

The party scene that opens Ann Patchett’s new novel unspools like a home movie. A lawyer from the L.A. district attorney’s office, Albert Cousins, crashes the christening celebration of baby Frances, second daughter of L.A. cop Fix Keating. Bert brings a bottle of gin; Beverly, Fix’s wife, halves oranges from the backyard for cocktails. Their collaboration on an assembly line of freshly squeezed drinks leads to an affair that breaks up two families–and joins them. It’s chaotic in the moment, but the patina of time reveals a graceful choreography.

Commonwealth‘s family saga, which follows the six Keating and Cousins kids over five decades, spirals around the secret tale of a child’s death and the migration of that tale, lightly disguised, into an award-winning novel by an outsider who was told the story. If you like your fiction to be about something, you could say this novel is about the morality of profiting from someone else’s experience. You could also say it’s about being human–speaking human words, making human choices, messing up with human fallibility and making amends with your hopeful human heart.

We don’t see the novel within the novel, but it’s hard to imagine better execution than Patchett’s. Moving effortlessly among her people and their pasts, she devotes attention as lovingly to a character whose life in this story spans two paragraphs as she does to Franny, the book’s linchpin. Although the death that devastates the clan ostensibly drives the plot, none of the 322 pages lacks a prize-worthy revelation in Patchett’s vibrant prose–about parents and siblings and what it means to grow up and let go, and what a bad idea it is to date a novelist.

At the christening party, one of the guests, Father Joe Mike, ruminates on the sudden proliferation of gins-and-juice among the revelers: “He wanted to tell the congregation, the few who were not presently in the Keatings’ backyard, how the miracle of loaves and fishes had been enacted here today, but he couldn’t find a way to wring enough booze out of the narrative.” Patchett could wring fiction from a stone. It’s delightful to read what she gets from Valencia oranges.

This appears in the September 26, 2016 issue of TIME.
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