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Fri July 5, 2013
City, Comedy And Calamity In Cathleen Schine's New Novel
Originally published on Thu July 4, 2013 6:03 am
Cathleen Schine can always be counted on for an enticing, smart read, and her latest novel, Fin & Lady, is no exception, but it's an odd duck, as quirky as its peculiarly named titular half-siblings. Neither as sparklingly funny as her most recent book, The Three Weissmanns of Westport, nor as brainy as her earlier Rameau's Niece, Fin & Lady is light, entertaining, and ultimately moving, but you can't help wondering what Schine hoped to achieve with it.
Set in the 1960s, the dawning of the age of both Aquarius and iconoclasts, Fin & Lady explores the freedom and richness of an unconventional, cobbled-together family. It evokes the adults-out-of-the-picture world of J.D. Salinger's Franny & Zooey and Charles Schulz's Peanuts, and also presages the rich variety of our modern extended families, which encompass donor dads, surrogate moms, half-siblings, step-parents, and even exes.
When 11-year-old Fin Hadley's widowed mother dies of cancer in 1964, his glamorous, "jittery," "majestic," "loose cannon" of a 24-year-old half-sister, Lady Hadley, whom he met just once, six years earlier, becomes his legal guardian. She shows up at his mother's funeral in the shortest dress he's ever seen and whisks him away from his late maternal grandparents' Connecticut farm in her turquoise Karmann Ghia. Together, they set up a makeshift, "herky-jerky family" in her Greenwich Village house. Thanks to the small fortune Lady's mother left her when she died, money conveniently isn't an issue — which lends the novel a sort of enchanted fairy tale quality and frees Lady from having to do anything so mundane as work.
As erratic, impulsive, unpredictable, and fun-loving as Truman Capote's Holly Golightly, Lady is an unlikely parental figure. She fled a shotgun wedding at 18 and aborted the pregnancy that had precipitated it, but now worries that her "sell-by date" is approaching. She enlists Fin to help her find a suitable husband, a job he assumes with hilarious earnestness. "What are your interests?" he asks each potential swain politely.
Schine is, as ever, a whiz at nailing characters with zinging dialogue and a few distinct traits. None of the three suitors who hang around the Hadleys' Charles Street house suits: Tyler, the stuffy lawyer Lady jilted at the altar; Jack, a Yalie jock; or Biffi, a sensible Hungarian Jewish art dealer's son whom Fin adores. Lady's favorite song is "You Don't Own Me" and her favorite expletive is "Lavender Jesus!" When Tyler insists she needs him, her response scathes: "I can't think what for."
Not surprisingly, free-spirited Lady is too restless and aimless to be entirely content. "You have to be a little stupid to be happy," she tells Fin, part of a running stream of offbeat life lessons that aren't quite sharp or shocking enough to really dazzle. She suffers from "gilded-cage days," hangovers, and seasonal allergies. "Pills and sunglasses," she advises her charge, again channeling Holly Golightly. "The answer to many of life's challenges."
Another answer is Mabel, the Hadleys' faithful housekeeper. A throwback to old sit-com domestics who also adds to the fairy tale ease of the young Hadleys' situation, Mabel provides a wise, stabilizing adult presence who keeps the household running while offering pointed commentary. When Fin worries that Lady will marry authoritarian Tyler and send him to boarding school, she reassures him, "Our Miss Lady is foolish, but she's no fool."
The novel is Fin's paean to Lady, but in a tricky, initially baffling conceit, it's relayed by a first-person narrator whose identity isn't revealed until late in the book. In addition to a strong wash of nostalgia, a sense of foreboding colors the idolatrous portrait, keeping us anxiously turning pages.
Schine portrays a society in transition, though she's better at satirizing the ridiculous curriculum at Fin's progressive New Flower school, where "In Language Arts, they read and discussed the liner notes of Bob Dylan albums," than in evoking civil rights marches and antiwar demonstrations. As in her last novel, Schine pulls off a moving conclusion. But Fin & Lady suffers from the strain of attempting to blend two distinct, generally incompatible narrative modes — effervescent comedy-of-manners and heavy sentiment — into one big happy family of a book.