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A distinctive story on an aging populace, caretakers

FICTION

They May Not Mean To, But They Do

By Cathleen Schine

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

$26, 304 pages

By Susan Wloszczyna

“They May Not Mean To, But They Do” is a sharply humorous yet compassionately drawn portrait of a multigenerational clan of innately droll native Manhattanites drawn together to weather the loss of their withered patriarch. The Bergmans could have sprouted from the mind of Woody Allen. But only if the size of the filmmaker’s heart, like the Grinch’s, grew at least three sizes bigger and his brain suddenly took a U-turn toward being female in its orientation.

Instead, author Cathleen Schine has produced a distinctive novel that speaks to our aging populace along with those well-meaning family members who must contend with them. Not since “Hannah and Her Sisters” have I enjoyed being among such an angst-riddled circle of related urban dwellers in a rent-controlled apartment complete with doorman and chaotic holiday gatherings.  There is a distinctive punchy rhythm to her writing, including dramatically short one- or two-page chapters and dialogue that comes with a sprinkling of song lyrics and literary allusions. Schine’s comic sensibility might not be for every taste considering that it leans toward the mordant, especially when dealing with mortality and health woes. But there is a sense of deep shared affection among the characters that provides a nice counterbalance to any conflicts.

Consider this brief darkly funny exchange between older child Molly, an archeology teacher and Los Angeles transplant who is in a lesbian relationship after being previously wed to a man and giving birth to now-college-age son Ben, and partner Freddie, who is beside herself  when her senile father’s Lothario-like inclinations might get him kicked out of his third assisted living home. )

I want to be cremated, Molly.”

“I know, honey.”

“No, I mean now.”

“I know, honey.”

There is an extended cast of colorful figures here that include take-charge Molly’s low-key brother Daniel and his wife, Coco, a queen of compromise, and their precocious preteen daughters. Ruby’s  obsessions past and present include Katy Perry, “Tom Sawyer” and studying for her unexpected bat mitzvah. Meanwhile, Cora seems most keen about raiding the piles of spare change in her grandparents’ home and repurposing their Jewish Christmas tree as compost.

But this junction of dysfunction’s main focus isn’t on the younger folk. Instead, the heroine in the midst of a late-life change is Joy Bergman, an 86-year-old matriarch. She is stretched parchment-thin as a caretaker of two kinds of Jewish artifacts.  There are those at her museum workplace, where she is suddenly encountering ageist resistance to her continued employment. And there is the human kind at home, where she struggles to singlehandedly tend to her adored though fading husband, Aaron, who is plagued by dementia, immobility, the discomfort of a colostomy bag and all that accompanies such infirmities. On top of that, he long ago squandered whatever gains were to be had when he inherited his family’s business fortune.  Joy, meanwhile, is a martyr but one who is willing to cut corners when she has to or conveniently push the bad, such as a growing pile of overdue bills, to the back of her mind and the dining room table.

The specifics surrounding Joy’s travails add a personalized texture to a situation that will resonate like a giant gong for anyone who has elderly parents or who themselves are eligible for Medicare and senior discounts.  There is that familiar wall of resistance when the topic of nursing homes or hiring outside help arises. And it can feel like aliens have invaded after waking up to find that a well-meaning child has suddenly organized all the household clutter into an unrecognizable sense of order or turned down the thermostat that is always set on stifling.

But when Aaron inevitably dies, Joy finds herself at a crossroads – one that paralyzes her for a while especially after she suffers a stroke and copes with a stubborn bacterial infection.  Molly, who calls daily, wants her to move to California.  Danny visits regularly and frets about Joy’s financial state. There are ups, such as when Molly and Freddie give her Gattoo, a chubby Chihuahua-poodle mix. And there are downs, such as when Joy is finally pushed out the door at work.

Schine observes, “Her children live in some other world, one that she could see but left behind, like the wake of a ship. Their lives foamed and splashed while she hurtled forward away from them toward nothing.” But then Joy finds something – Karl, a gentleman from her past who lives nearby. She reveals to her family that she’s invited him to Ruby’s bat mitzvah. And a flood of hurt and resentment gushes forth as Molly and Daniel feel it’s too soon for someone to replace their dad. They don’t mean to muck things up for their mother, but as the title inspired by Philip Larkin says, they do.

But only for a while. There is usually some semblance of love behind everyone’s motives in this story, good or bad – one reason why Woody Allen probably couldn’t have written this book. After all, this is a family that accepted Molly coming out as a lesbian. They still invite her ex and his wife to their holiday gatherings. Even though Daniel leans toward the secular, he supports his daughter’s interest in the Jewish faith. 

When Ben gets in a bit of foolish legal trouble, he knows his grandmother won’t judge him. And, in their hearts, Molly and Daniel want Joy to be as happy as her name during the time that she has left in this world. 

Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and a current regular critic for the Roger Ebert website.