The raising of an orphaned 11-year-old boy is taken over by his glamorous, mercurial half-sister.
This is a story of enchantment (and that’s long before we get to the dream-infested isle of Capri), and like many tales of enchantment, it begins with an orphan. You know how so many children’s books have orphans for heroes? (Adventures come easier unimpeded by parents.) In “Fin & Lady,” it’s a bit like one of those orphans has been transported, by way of a Series of Unfortunate Events, into a Henry James novel that happens to be taking place in the 1960s. The older half-sister, who inherits the care of the orphan (Fin) is even a Lady, though Lady is actually her name.
Fin comes to Lady when he is 11 (“Too old for a nap, too young for a drink,” she remarks), a familiar and charming sort of little hero — bright, cheeky, resourceful and utterly sympathetic. Lady (an orphan, as well) is 23, known to Fin only from a time, five years earlier, when he and his mother and his and Lady’s father had to retrieve her from Capri, where she’d ended up after ducking her own wedding, stirring up something of a scandal.
Lady is beautiful, capricious, winsome and everyone (except, apparently, her father, before he inconveniently died) loves her. In short, she’s the sort of guardian any kid, if he had to have one, would love. As Fin duly does. So, of course, do men, and once she transports Fin and his trusty collie, Gus, from their Connecticut farm to a brownstone in the Village, suitors soon follow.
These suitors — a handsome, callow jockish fellow; the original intended groom and family lawyer; and a Hungarian refugee who’s somewhat more substantial and Fin’s favorite (his “pretend father” for a while) — are around in various ways as Fin begins to grow up and Lady again and again breaks her vow to marry by 25, until the pressures they represent prompt her to flee. To say more would be unfair.
Meanwhile, there are adventures aplenty to be had, as the ethos of the ’60s sets in, with its peace rallies and civil rights protests and raised consciousness and cultural absurdities (like the Flower School that Fin attends, where the question, “Where is the girls’ room?” gets this answer: “Never tell a child what he can learn for himself,” and where the teacher, Red, sometimes “would ask them to be a tree, which took about 15 minutes”). The ramping up of pop psychology also has a wonderful representative in Fin’s neighbor and friend Phoebe, who, with psychologists for parents, always comes up with pithy answers to Fin’s questions. (When Fin, in light of the troubling suitors, wonders, “But what does Lady want?” Phoebe offers: “Probably an orgasm.”)
Throughout, though the book is written in the third person — about Fin — a first-person narrator emerges, first framing the story from a future perspective (“But how was I to know that? Fin would ask years later.”), then becoming a character of sorts (“I’ve seen him hold that book up to his face and breathe in its scent.”). And when we finally meet this mostly self-effacing narrator, the compulsion behind the storytelling becomes clear, and the enchantment comes full circle.
Ellen Akins is a novelist who teaches in Fairleigh Dickinson University’s MFA program. She’s at www.ellenakins.com.