Wednesday, July 6, 2016

"They May Not Mean To, But They Do," by Cathleen Schine

The title “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016) is a reference to Philip Larkin’s famous poem: “They f--- you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.” The irony in this novel by Cathleen Schine is that the parents and children mess (to use a more polite term than Larkin did) each other up, yet always with love. Impatience and exasperation, yes; resentment, sometimes; misunderstandings, definitely. But always love. Schine is the author of several other novels, including two that I have written about here: “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” (see my post of 4/11/10) and “Fin and Lady” (7/28/13). Schine has a distinctive, observant, wry, humorous, occasionally sharp voice, and she understands the nuances of relationships among family members. In this case, the parents are elderly; Aaron Bergman is suffering from increasing dementia as well as various unpleasant physical ailments, and his wife Joy is exhausted from taking care of him at their apartment in New York. Their daughter Molly has moved to California with her female lover, Freddie, and worries about her parents from afar, calling and visiting frequently; their son Daniel lives in New York too, and he is attentive, but he has a job and a family that limit the time and help he can give his parents. The situation is painful and poignant in its specificity, but also in its obvious relevance to an increasing number of people these days. Everyone is of good will, but there is no way that this situation is not very hard. Yet somehow the novel is not (very) depressing, probably because of the aforementioned love the family members have for each other, and because of the affirmation of the pleasures of life even in the midst of this serious situation. Schine is adept at showing all sides of this situation, and at the same time at not making this a one-issue novel.

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