'If her mother had not been so pretty, none of this would have happened'. So muses Franny, at the end of this lovely novel. And at the beginning, it is indeed the irresistible beauty of Beverley Keating that causes the married, but restless, Bert Cousins to kiss her in the nursery at Franny's christening party, and before we know where we are, two marriages have broken up and Bert and Beverley are married. Or at least we gather that is what happened, as the narrative of this book proceeds obliquely, moving back and forth through time, hinting at events or laying trails which will probably be elucidated later. What we do know is that two homes are exploded, as Bert takes Beverley and her two daughters, Franny and Caroline, back to his home state of Virginia, and his ex-wife Teresa remains in Los Angeles with her four children, the youngest of whom, Albie, was born after the break-up.
The chief result of the two divorces and the remarriage is that all six children are forced into what certainly becomes an uneasy alliance. Every summer the four Cousins children are flown across the US to spend the long vacation with their father and stepmother, neither of whom is particularly interested in entertaining them or keeping an eye on what they get up to. This gives then a considerable amount of freedom, which they enjoy to a great extent, but which will ultimately have tragic consequences. Even before this happens (and it happens so quietly that it takes a while to realise exactly what has happened) we watch with a mixture of pleasure and horror as the kids run wild on a lake holiday, leaving their tired parents in bed while they make their way across the fields, armed with chocolate, crisps, gin and a gun that happened to be in the glove compartment. I don't want to tell you too much, but the gun is actually a red herring. Soon, bored with looking after baby Albie, they dose him up with Cal's anti-histamine tablets and leave him peacefully sleeping in a field - not the first, or the last, time they have done this.
Interspersed with the history of the children's childhood is an account of what takes place once they grow up. Franny, the main focus of the novel, has dropped out of law school and is working as a cocktail waitress in a posh hotel. Here she meets Leo Posen, a famous novelist who is suffering from writer's block. As their relationship progresses, she tells him the story of her childhood, and this he transforms into a best-selling novel, which is also called Commonwealth. The book is read by Albie, now an adult, estranged from his family, and a recovering heroin addict, who is initially appalled to discover what his siblings did to him when he was tiny, and what the ultimate effect of this was to be. However this causes him to track down Franny, leading to a new friendship and also ending Franny's five-year affair with Leo.
Another strand of the narrative moves forward more than fifty years from that fateful christening party, and we find Franny and her sister Caroline visiting their father, who is in the grip of terminal cancer. The two sisters pretty much hated each other as children but are now reconciled, and the same is true of the rest of this disparate bunch of people, who have come to look back at the extraordinary and often painful events of their past with an eye of maturity and forgiveness. Abbie, who has been horrified initially by Leo's novel, comes to view it with greater understanding:
It was about the inestimable burden of their lives: the work, the houses, the friendships, the marriages, the children, as if all the things they’d wanted and worked for had cemented the impossibility of any sort of happiness.
Amazingly, though, happiness does come to the survivors of what seems for a long time to be a tragic mess. There's nothing sentimental about this, but yes, it is an optimistic novel, one that believes in the possibility of love and forgiveness. And why not? The novel is wonderfully perceptive about human beings and the way they interact, beautifully constructed and immensely thought-provoking and memorable. I listened to it on Audible and enjoyed every minute.