Peoplewatching is the best. I love being in the vicinity of a crowd. Plant me in a corner seat in a bar, an out-of-the-way chair at an airport, the back row at a wedding, and I am set. Watching interpersonal intersections is endlessly fascinating. The best peoplewatching, though, is when I score an invite to a family reunion for a family other than my own. Family reunion dynamics are flat out epic. It’s like watching bowling. People mill about in tightly formed clusters, maintaining uprightness, then BAM! Someone knocks everyone nine-eyed by telling the story of how Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy got into a shouting match at Bobby’s wedding over who was sitting at the better table.
Bobby: It was Helen
Me: Don’t start
Bobby: She bribed me with a better gift
Me: You’re making it worse
Come to think of it, the entire family reunion experience is like a day at the bowling alley. It’s loud, you probably won’t like the music, and somewhere, someone is definitely keeping score. The best strategy to employ is to find your team, name it something silly, and keep your head down bowling your frames until it’s last call. If that’s even beyond you, though, stay home and read a book about someone else’s family dynamic, and make sure that book is Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett.
Bobby: I named my team
Me: I’m listening
Bobby: Best Seats In The House
Me: Way to poke the bear
Ann Patchett is a bestselling author, gifted writer, and owner of one of America’s most amazing bookstores because life isn’t fair. Well—it’s fair to HER. Not to me. I have to make special trips to bookstores because I don’t own my own, and when I do get to the bookstore, none of my bestselling books are on the shelf. Ann Patchett has to skirt around the giant Personally Written Bestsellers Section of her own bookstore just to get to her cash register so she can check out the next person in line there to buy one of her books. Commonwealth is her latest novel, a story of how families are made and unmade, of the collective territory of shared experience, and of how memories can tether us to each other even when we’ve left the past behind. It’s a wholly beautiful book, and Ann Patchett is astonishing in her ability to move the narration seamlessly from the past to present to the past. She understands that the key characteristic of family dynamics is baggage.
Bobby: Like a bowling bag
Bobby: I keep bowling shoes in mine
Me: You own your own bowling shoes?
An uninvited stranger’s attendance at an overdue christening party is all it takes to circumvent the seemingly settled lives of two families. Bert, an indifferent husband and a casual father to three-and-one-on-the-way, manufactures countless reasons to avoid participating in his home life. He wanted lots of kids, it’s just that actually parenting lots of tiny humans is, you know, a bummer. It’s in this spirit that Bert crashes a christening party for a co-worker’s new baby rather than spend a weekend afternoon with his own children. Several gin and juices and one kiss later, Bert has met the woman who will eventually be his second wife, and Commonwealth gets down to the messy business of affairs, divorces, and remarriages.
When all the dust Bert kicks up settles, there are six children in a new blended family that none of them asked for and none of them want. Anyone who grew up in a large family will recognize themselves somewhere in these brothers and sisters. Age, birth order, gender—all those slippery quantifiables that determine what your power is and where you can wield it. As the kids in Commonwealth grow up and make peace with the choices their parents have made, Patchett presents each of their stories in turn. The sibling relationships in this book are front and center, and what makes this book so powerful is Patchett’s ability to give each character’s perspective equal weight while maintaining the flow and the momentum of the story.
One of the universal experiences of childhood is grappling with powerlessness by declaring “When I grow up, I’m never going to do anything I don’t want to do” while one of the universal truths of adulthood is grappling with the discovery that we very often have to do things we don’t want to do. If attending family functions during the holidays is one of the things that you don’t want to do, the characters in Commonwealth are right there with you. Feeling stuck in an old family dynamic gets, well, old. What are the compromises we have to make as grownups to participate in family narratives that are sometimes older than we are?
If you find yourself stuck at a family gathering, and things are starting to get ugly, book a few lanes at the nearest bowling alley. Keep Aunt Helen and Aunt Kathy on separate teams at opposite ends. Bobby likes to stir things up, so keep him in the middle and give him the team with all the kids to keep him busy. Grab a lane yourself and knock some pins down. Or, if bowling isn’t really your thing, grab a seat where you can see everyone and settle in. The peoplewatching is great at a bowling alley.
If you are close to Nashville, immediately visit Parnassus, Ann Patchett’s bookstore.