The Immortalists and Commonwealth

Cover of The ImmortalistsCover of The CommonwealthReading two novels covering five decades and the children of two families at the same time can be confusing. And at times when I was reading The Immortalists (2018) by Chloe Benjamin and Commonwealth (2016) by Ann Patchett, I did find myself having to remember which kid belonged to which family. (I listened to the books during my commute, hence I didn’t always have the cover to remind which one was playing.) I was reading both for book clubs earlier this year, and the library due dates, as well as the book club meeting dates, led to the back and forth listening.

But beyond a minute or two of reorientation when I pushed “play,” there were clear differences in the stories.

In Benjamin’s book, four New York children from the Gold family went looking for amusement on a summer day and wound up visiting a fortuneteller who told them when they would die. This, of course, led to self-fulfilling prophecies in Benjamin’s telling.

Patchett’s book also includes an unsupervised summer day when six children of a semi-blended family spend a day alone. Their lives are indelibly marked by their choices that day, but the implications aren’t as obvious as for the Gold children who now know when they’ll die.

Patchett’s book opens with Franny Keating’s baptism, the day her mother meets Bert Cousins. With the divorces of both the Keatings and the Cousins, and the marriage of Beverly Keating and Bert Cousins, the six children’s lives are upended. The two Keating children — Caroline and Franny — go with their mother to live in Virginia. The four Cousins’ children — Cal, Holly, Jeanette and Albie — stay with their mother in California. The Cousins go to Virginia in the summer, where they join the Keating girls and are largely ignored by Beverly and Bert all season.

As the children grow and their parents age, their lives become entangled in new ways. They struggle to find their paths in life.

Franny eventually becomes the lover of an author she meets while waitressing at a Chicago bar and restaurant. As she shares her life story with him, he writes a novel, also called Commonwealth, that bares the details of her family history. When the book is made into a movie, she is afraid her family will be unhappy with having their story made public. The bulk of the novel involves their reactions to the public revelations, even though their names have been changed.

The story doesn’t march straight forward in time, but involves flashbacks to childhood experiences as the children and their parents age.

Patchett, in an NPR interview, says she writes the same book over and over about “a group of people who are pulled out of one family or situation and dropped into another one in which they are not familiar, and then I see how communities are formed.” She says Commonwealth  is unusual in that she “drew from things that were much closer to my life.”

Her prose is simple without being simplistic, easy to read and comprehend. For example, early in the book she writes:

“Beverly leaned out of the kitchen. There were easily thirty people standing between them — the entire Meloy clan, all the DeMatteos, a handful of altar boys plowing through what was left of the cookies — but there was no missing Beverly. That yellow dress.

“‘Fix?’ she said, raising her voice over the din.

“It was Cousins who turned his head first, and Cousins gave her a nod.

“By reflex Fix stood straighter, but he let the moment pass. … “

The initial conflict is revealed and the complications grow from here, rending and restructuring two families. The children separate themselves through physical moves, career and family choices, and time. But their lives remain linked because one man saw another’s wife in a yellow dress.

In Benjamin’s book Simon, Klara, Daniel and Varya Gold are the children whose lives are also marked by a summer moment when they are on their own. Not too many pages into the book, Benjamin writes:

The Gold children asked around. The owner of a magic shop in Chinatown had heard of the woman on Hester Street. She was a nomad, he told Klara, traveling around the country, doing her work. …

Some of the other residents at 72 Clinton Street knew of the woman, too. Mrs. Blumenstein had met her in the fifities at a fabulous party, she told Simon. …

“She read my palm. She said I would have a very long life,” Mrs. Blumenstein said, leaning forward for emphasis. …

The Hindu family on the sixth floor called the woman rishika, a seer. …

“A Hindu dies at home,” [Ruby] said. “…when [my grandmother] died on May sixteenth, just like the rishika said, we cried with relief.”

In an interview with BookPage, Benjamin compares her first and second novels, saying, “The Anatomy of Dreams is a more internal look at the conscious and the subconscious, and an almost claustrophobic exploration of the central relationship. With The Immortalists, I wanted to cover more ground socially, culturally and historically, as well as interpersonally. It felt important to challenge myself to write a book with greater scope and diversity.”

Again, most of the book’s prose is simple and easy to read. Benjamin has a light but plainspoken writing style that, for me, dwells immediately and abruptly on physical traits and throughout on sex lives. It felt almost prurient to me at the beginning, and in many aspects that sense never left me as I read the book. Others may react differently.

But, frankly, both books are based on relationships — including sexual — and reading them at the same time may have been a bit too much for me. Again, others may react differently.

I wouldn’t rank either among my favorite books, but I must admit they have had incredible staying power in my mind. I would almost call them haunting stories, because they have stayed with me for many months after reading them.