Cathleen Schine’s new novel is a seamless blend of humor and heartbreak, shot through with so many funny, painful truths that absorbing them all is an experience to be savored. With a bright yellow cover with Dick-and-Jane style drawings, They May Not Mean To, But They Do looks a bit jaunty, but its humor is steeped in familiar (and unsparing) reality.
Exploring family life with comic insight has long been one of Schine’s strengths, in such novels as Fin & Lady (in which a young orphan comes to live with his older sister in 1960s Greenwich Village) and The Three Weissmans of Westport (an updated Sense and Sensibility set in Connecticut). Now Schine returns to a subject she touched on briefly in Westport — the relationships between adult children and their aging parents and the frictions and frustrations that develop as a family grows old together.
In They May Not Mean To, But They Do — the title is inspired by a Philip Larkin poem — Schine introduces the Bergmans, who “were New Yorkers ... had always been New Yorkers.” Only now adult daughter Molly has moved to California with her wife. This leaves her elderly mother Joy bereft (“ ‘California’ — even the name had become ugly to Joy, like ‘Lee Harvey Oswald’ or ‘Sirhan Sirhan’ ”).
Joy is still working at a small museum that specializes in Jewish artifacts but also caring for her husband Aaron, who is slipping into dementia. Molly’s brother Daniel and his family live nearby, but as anyone with a sick parent knows, close isn’t enough. Aaron’s health deteriorates, and the Bergmans are faced the wrenching dilemmas we all eventually contend with: If Joy can’t care for Aaron, who will? And how will they pay for outside care when Aaron’s bad investments have left Joy with dwindling savings?
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Schine shows great compassion for all her characters; she understands that these waters are uncharted for everyone. Molly, who’s flying back and forth across the country but mostly trying to manage her mother from afar, cringes at hearing about the daily gruesome details about her father’s colostomy bag (“Please spare me those particular details, Molly thought guiltily, knowing her mother could not spare herself those details”).
When Aaron dies, Joy doesn’t expect her children to move in with her but does “expect something from them, though, something they were not providing, she couldn’t put her finger on it.” Meanwhile, she grows simultaneously more fragile and more stubborn, especially after she befriends an old flame.
Schine gets everything right here: The hopeful conversations between Daniel and Molly, during which you can feel their unspoken need for their mother to be all right. Joy’s frustration with herself as an increasingly frail being, her insistence on independence, even her eventual inability to converse with her daughter. “Her mother wanted to talk, not to listen,” Molly realizes after hearing yet another monologue over the phone. “It was an exhalation of words, no intake of breath, no pauses, a stream of consciousness into which no one else could dip a toe, an incompleteness so complete there could be no natural end to a conversation. ... there was little chance for Molly to interrupt, and she stopped trying.”
Life holds loneliness and sorrow, yes, but also random joys and delights. Schine never loses sight of life’s quirks and ironies, and she writes with an empathetic, breezy confidence about the most difficult of subjects. Don’t shy away from They May Not Mean To, But They Do. Warm, lively and generous, it’s one of the must-reads of the summer.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.
Meet the author
Who: Cathleen Schine
When: 7 p.m. June 18
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Information: 305-442-4408 or www.booksandbooks.com