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Why Cathleen Schine is the best literary novelist you’ve never heard of

Linda Burgess examines the case of American novelist Cathleen Schine, who seems more famous for leaving New Yorker film critic David Denby for another woman than she does as a writer who is adored by Meg Worlitzer and Alison Lurie.

One of the things you can judge a book by are the author’s acknowledgements. If there are more than five or six of them – and definitely if they go to a second page – then put the book back on the shelf. I’m talking about novelists of course – non-fiction writers have to acknowledge until their fingernails bleed. But if novelists go beyond the love of their life at time of writing, their editor, agent, the person who knew about ancient scrolls and whoever it was who patiently read their early drafts, I’ll say again – do you really want to be in the company of this needy, gushy person?

In They May Not Mean To, But They Do, Cathleen Schine passes the acknowledgement test in a screamingly quiet way, by thanking just a handful of people, including her good friend, novelist Elizabeth Strout. Flip to the back cover and see enthusiastic comments from Meg Wolitzer and Alison Lurie: this is a princess among princesses. Given the following, that Strout, Tyler, Lurie, and Wolitzer have  among readers of literary fiction in New Zealand, the question is, how come most people I know had never heard of Schine?

If you want to categorise her, put her in the domestic fiction genre; she’s truly keeping company with Tyler and Strout. Reviewers are predictably reminded of Jane Austen. She’s often described as “hilarious” and “deeply affecting.” What exactly it is that tips her at-first-glance light fiction into something profound?

Her subject matter – families in various states of disrepair – is hardly rare. But part of her special genius can be seen when she puts her sharp eye and ear right into the head of her older women characters. In both They May Not Mean To and (my favourite of her novels) The Three Weissmanns of Westport, I relished every moment spent in the company of these women. Schine seems to have been born knowing all of the small yet deeply significant irritations.

Cathleen Schine speaks at a poetry event (Screenshot: Youtube)

Cathleen Schine speaks at a poetry event (Screenshot: Youtube)

Because I so enjoy the point-of-view of these women characters I initially found it irritating that in this most recent novel she moves – very adeptly, but still – around multiple points of view. The central character is Joy but the point-of-view races around Joy’s extended family and even beyond. The main storyline is that Aaron, Joy’s husband of many decades, is demented and dying. When he finally gets around to it – and forgive my insensitivity but given that it’s signposted from the first page, 130 pages can pass somewhat slowly – the next part of the story can begin. As in, the reappearance of a love from times long past, and the reaction of Joy’s family to her new relationship.

This novel did feel at times that it had simply too many characters. Perhaps once imagined, Schine is loath to let them go. But I’ve had to reassess my response to the multiple points of view. I think Schine, through her structure, is making a very pertinent point: we are all someone’s child, and many of us go on to become a child’s parent. The fucking up that parents do to their children – implied in the title, which is the second line of Larkin’s famous poem – continues down through the generations: you’re fucked up by your fucked-up parents, then you go on to fuck up your own kids.

There’s another layer to this: at some stage in a parent/child relationship, there’s a power shift. At some stage, you will put out your hand to stop your mother heading witlessly across the road, just as she once did for you. Joy’s children are at exactly this stage. Their mother is widowed, there’s a new bloke on the horizon, and they want to look out for her. Well, they know they’re meant to. Meanwhile, back in their own homes, they’re busily fucking up their own children’s lives. And not only feeling the usual guilt for not being where they should be at any given time, but also that resentment that those who extend themselves to offer help can feel when their help is rejected.

Larkin poem

Their perception that their mother is in need of their support is both true and not true. Joy has had many decades to realise that Aaron is a bit hopeless – a borderline fantasist, a waster of funds. Her reaction to what has been perhaps an ill-considered choice of partner is to keep working – in her 70s she is still happily working, in a museum. The stroke she has in the course of this book pretty much puts an end to that. So Schine gives her some good fortune – verging on the fairytale, but that’s forgivable – in the reappearance of Karl, a boyfriend from her past, who has made a far better fist of making a decent living than Aaron has.

What’s more, he appears to be a lot nicer. The reader, who feels we have known Karl since his first benign appearance in Central Park, in charge of an identical red walker to the one that Aaron is shuffling along on, feels more confident for Joy than her family do. He’s not portrayed as her saviour: he’s an interesting late-in-life option. And he’s not family.

The New York setting is divine – who cares if it’s verging on the stereotypical if it’s so well portrayed? Characters (Jewish, of course, with some taking Jewishness more seriously than others) talk as if they’ve been picked up by Woody Allen on one of his quieter days, and have charmingly ramshackle country houses in the Hamptons. They have minor money worries. They walk in Central Park. They come home to the sort of inner-city apartments that have doormen who are like old friends.

This is not a depressing novel, nor is it sentimental romantic escapism. Its freshness and Schine’s skill as writer put it in the literary class. Shit happens, it says. If you don’t laugh you’ll cry, it implies. Oy, it says, Something might turn up! I wouldn’t put Schine in Strout’s league, but at her best, she’s a pretty fine read.

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