The Kids Against Mum

Drawing by Edward Gorey
Edward Gorey Charitable Trust
Drawing by Edward Gorey

Over the past thirty-three years, Cathleen Schine has been one of our most realistically imaginative, dependably readable novelists. Starting with Alice in Bed (1983), her ten books comprise a sly, illuminating corpus that seems more related to the English comic novel than to most contemporary American fiction. Her work is as shapely and precisely structured if more generously cluttered than Barbara Pym’s, one of her avowed models; as ruefully satiric though less tart than Muriel Spark’s, another acknowledged influence; as buoyant though less panoramic than Anthony Trollope’s (a favorite); as sharply observant though gentler and not as grim as Anita Brookner’s.

Schine often writes about educated New Yorkers—editors, academics, booksellers, curators, downwardly mobile members of the bourgeoisie, usually Jewish, whose families may have had some money but who are now just scraping by, thanks in part to their obstinate bookishness. An ethical tribe, they are blindsided by their lusts, baffled by ambivalence toward their mates and parents, and unsure whether to carry on stoically or make a run for liberation. Culturally sophisticated if not always self-aware, they trade wisecracks and witty, self-deprecating dialogue that deflect and defend their vulnerability. Two of her novels, Rameau’s Niece (1993) and The Love Letter (1995), have been made into movies; and those of her books that fall short of their initial promise leave you at times with the pat sensation of watching a Nora Ephron romantic comedy.

Her tenth and newest novel, however, cuts deeper, feels fuller and more ambitious, and seems to me her best. The book’s odd-sounding title, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, derives from the infamous Philip Larkin poem “This Be The Verse”:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.

In Schine’s reversal of the formula, it is the well-meaning children who screw up their elderly parents’ lot. The Bergman family is introduced to us at the start of the novel: “They were like a cult,…tight knit and suspicious of strangers. They were tribal and closed, bound by blood. They were one, the world the other.” Moreover, “the Bergmans were New Yorkers, [who] had always been New Yorkers.”

Joy, the matriarch, is in her mid-eighties and has been married all her adult life to Aaron, an irresponsible charmer who had wanted to be a classical singer but instead went into the family’s well-run business, which he managed to bankrupt. They have two middle-aged children, Molly, an archaeologist, and Daniel, an environmental lawyer. Molly has broken the family mold, first by divorcing her husband to marry a woman, Freddie, and second by moving to California.

Molly has found happiness with Freddie in sunny Los Angeles, but she feels guilty for abandoning her parents, especially at a time when her father has been sinking into…

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