Taking the good with the bad, Cathleen Schine challenges assumptions about family, romance and aging in this hugely satisfying novel. With great affection, Schine’s “They May Not Mean To, but They Do” introduces a quirky extended family as it faces dementia and dying.
Joy Bergman, an Upper East Side matriarch still working as an art conservator in her 80s, struggles to manage her beloved husband’s painful decline. Molly and Daniel, her concerned but preoccupied grown children, try to persuade her to let Aaron go, but as Molly reflects, “they were as one.” Proud to a fault, Joy refuses help.
Faced with the challenge of loving someone with fading memory and health, Joy re-evaluates her marriage and family life, dreading becoming a burden. “She seemed to need them more than ever, which was gratifying, but she didn’t need to see them too much, which was more gratifying still.”
Placing her needs below everyone else’s becomes too difficult a balance to maintain. Joyful, as her husband once called her, she is not.
After Aaron’s death, Joy re-connects with an old flame. With a caretaker and a walker, Karl is no longer the dashing college boyfriend she once adored, but in his eyes, she’s still the feisty young woman he never stopped loving. Karl can’t erase her grief, but with him, she is no widow, no one’s mother. She’s simply Joy.
While her previous novel, “The Three Weissmanns of Westport,” found inspiration in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” Schine’s new novel is, in many ways, a companion to the television series “Transparent.” Although no one in this novel questions his or her gender, Schine turns the conventional “coming of age” novel on its head by examining the ways in which unexpected, late love upends identity. “They May Not Mean To, but They Do” confronts the simple-minded perspective that assisted living kills romantic love. Second acts don’t have an age limit.
Molly may have left her perfectly nice husband, moving to California for a woman who became her wife, but she finds it hard to accept that her mother might fall in love again. Through a series of comedic interventions, Joy’s children attempt to circumvent this courtship, going so far as to adopt a dog (named Gatto) in order to tether Joy to California. After the dog is attacked, Joy returns to New York, declaring, “I’m taking Gatto home where it’s safe.”
This richly empathetic novel embraces the fact that to live means to accept change. This may rattle those in middle age, but is understood best by the very young and the very old.
At its heart, the novel’s optimistic spirit is grounded in Joy’s observation that “it did not do to ignore the delicious.”
Lauren LeBlanc is a freelance book editor and writer, as well as a senior nonfiction editor at Guernica magazine. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn.
They May Not Mean To, but They Do
By: Cathleen Schine.
Publisher: Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus & Giroux, 290 pages, $26.