This novel ended up on my to-read list after being recommended by our library’s website after I finished Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I really didn’t know what I was getting into though, to be honest, but I did assume that like Ng’s book, it would be some kind of personal family drama. That is certainly was, and this is a genre I usually quite like, but this time I find myself feeling a bit lukewarm about the whole endeavor.
Commonwealth begins with a man named Bert Cousins showing up to the christening party of Fisk and Beverly Keating’s 2nd daughter, Franny. Bert doesn’t really know the family, but has loose ties to friends-in-common through work, and goes to the party on a whim to have some time away from his own family. By the end of the party, however, Bert and Beverly end up kissing, and Bert can’t help but feel like his life has now changed forever. Unsurprisingly, this leads to an affair and eventual divorce, yet now the two families of the Cousins and the Keatings are even more intertwined through the 6 children that are involved between the 4 parents. Through flashes forward and back, we see how this affair and melding of the two families has shaped each of the children and parents’ lives across the years, with new bonds and secrets and taking shape over time. All of these moments, however, are brought into focus by the one daughter, Franny, after a relationship with a famous author leads him to write a story based on Franny’s family drama for all of them to have a new vantagepoint of reflection. Spanning across 5 decades, this story involves a large cast of characters and drama, but also many soft moments of love, and realistic moments of the mundane aspects of life that many people can relate to.
This novel touches on some very personal, human moments, and the way the story spins does involve some twists and surprises that I personally didn’t expect. But the problem is that it bogs itself down in a lot of ways: there are a lot of main characters here, and while each of them gets their own little section in the fallout of the inciting incident, it still feels like certain characters get a lot more love and attention than others. Certainly, some of them have more interesting stories, but the switches between characters sometimes do a disservice to the one we were just focusing on; the timing of the moments works in some places but in others seems to happen right when there is a moment for opening up that I felt should be followed-through with the character we are still on.
What I normally love about books with very human and relatable plots is the personal resonance, or the deep and real emotions they give to the reader. Some of that was present in this, but there was still a certain formality (between the characters and in the writing’s presentation) that didn’t let everything break through like it could have. So overall with Commonwealth, the bones of something really strong are here, just waiting to burst through, and they do at certain times! But in the end it falters under the weight of its own undertaking, finding a decent burst of life near the end before inevitably dragging itself across the finish-line.