In two decades and seven novels, Cathleen Schine has made a specialty of creating spirited if mildly depressive heroines in search of a brainy conceit to live by, whether it’s birdwatching (To the Birdhouse), French Enlightenment philosophy (Rameau’s Niece), Darwinian theory (The Evolution of Jane), or Flaubert’s famous dictum about Madame Bovary (She Is Me). But in Schine’s latest zingy domestic comedy, The New Yorkers, the characters don’t have conceits. They have dogs. Or they don’t—and the novel’s own conceit is that this makes all the difference. On the slightly down-at-heels Upper West Side block where the story unfolds, happiness—or the closest Schine’s brightly downbeat characters can come to it—is next to dogginess.
The block is located somewhere just around the corner from Nora Ephron territory and a few income brackets off the posher avenues familiar from Woody Allen movies. “It was never one of New York City’s fashionable blocks,” the omniscient (and occasionally intrusive) narrator tells us as the book opens. “There are no mansions there, no narrow houses of historical importance, no plaques attesting to former residents of consequence. It was not even a particularly beautiful block.” But thanks to rent control, it’s still full of quirky New York characters, “struggling musicians and actors and secretaries and window washers,… some of them growing successful, some simply growing old.”
Most of Schine’s characters would count themselves among the latter. There’s Jody, a “self-styled spinster” approaching the ominous age of forty, who spends her days teaching music at an elite private school, her nights battling hovering dissatisfaction, and the rest of her time, it seems, walking her aging white pit bull, Beatrice. In a brownstone apartment across the way, Simon, a middle-aged “asocial worker,” loses himself in novels and thoughts of his annual fox-hunting vacation. A bit further down the street, Everett, a bored fifty-year-old divorced empty nester, tends his loneliness and his obsessively neat midcentury modern décor, while a few floors below a bossy twenty-six-year-old copyeditor named Polly shares a two-bedroom with a puppy named Howdy and her slacker brother George, a former child prodigy who can’t remember what he was supposed to have been so prodigious in. Rounding out the cast are an impeccably dressed French widow with a three-legged mutt, a Holocaust-survivor divorcée with a pug, and a gay couple with two cairn terriers (not to mention five kids and two nannies), owners of an upscale corner eatery called the Go Go Grill—Chinese for “dog,” of course—where the locals and their four-legged companions gather regularly to relax and flout city sanitation rules. There’s even a withered old black-clad lady with a cane who can periodically be seen tapping her way down the block, muttering in Italian. When one of the characters spontaneously starts humming the theme from the TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, he isn’t kidding.
Except that Mr. Rogers was never overly concerned with the ins …