Wonderfully funny though they often are, Cathleen Schine’s novels are steeped in sadness, their humor grounded in unlikely premises ranging from paralysis in her first book (“Alice in Bed”) to economic disasters in her most recent (“The Three Weissmanns of Westport”). Schine knows that laughter isn’t just an escape from life’s sorrows, but also a recognition of them.
“Fin & Lady,” her new novel, opens more sorrowfully than most. Fin, 11,is attending his third funeral in a year. The first two were for his grandparents, with whom Fin and his widowed mother lived in rural Connecticut; this one is for his mother. Schine’s delicate touch is evident in stream-of-consciousness passages that faultlessly reproduce a child’s ricochets from topic to topic while revealing some of Fin’s fraught family background.
Fin’s late father, Hugo Hadley, was a hard-drinking, hardworking man. He was particularly hard on Lady, his feckless daughter from a previous marriage, who is now Fin’s miniskirted guardian at age 24.
Can there be any fun following this somber setup? Yes, and most of it stems from Fin’s coming of age under Lady’s wing during the turbulent 1960s. Lady lives in Greenwich Village, an epicenter of the nascent counterculture whose drumbeat can be heard at her parties. “What’s a honky? Where’s Port Huron? What pill?” asks her bewildered charge. Fin quickly gets the hang of the new zeitgeist after being enrolled at the local progressive school, where he learns that “the correct answer to most questions . . . was ‘Advertising’ or, even better, ‘Society.’ ”
The social backdrop is occasionally somewhat canned, but Schine nicely captures the mind-set of someone who can’t remember a time when America wasn’t bitterly polarized. Getting arrested with his big sister at a sit-in seems perfectly normal to Fin. His new life, “utterly different from his earlier years of safe and comfortable routine . . . was as good as a circus,” and Lady is the beloved ringmaster
But it’s Fin who turns out to be the true child of the ’60s. Lady prefers cigarettes and martinis to wine and grass, and she mystifies Fin by keeping hapless suitors hanging around for years. At 11, he’s disappointed that she won’t marry Biffi, the protective Hungarian immigrant he adores, and terrified that she’ll marry Tyler, the lawyer who keeps urging Lady to send him to boarding school. At 15, Fin can’t understand why Lady won’t get rid of these men she doesn’t love and fully embrace the freedom she’s taught him to cherish. “You’re scared of being on your own,” he tells her with the thoughtlessly cruel honesty of an adolescent. “You’re a coward.”
Fin grows to understand Lady better in the three years between their confrontation in New York and the denouement in Capri. His maturing perceptions come to us via a mysterious narrator whose identity, not revealed until the final pages, closes Schine’s thematic circle. This is, in essence, a novel about the choices we make in creating a family and about the inevitable limits of freedom. “I have everything now,” Lady tells Fin after she’s recovered from a bout of near-suicidal despair in Capri. “I’ll never be free. . . . Why would I want to be?” She’s finally stopped trying to pretend that freedom and love can peacefully cohabit.
There are good wisecracks in the Capri chapters, but Schine’s wit is muted in favor of unabashed sentiment. Some readers may miss the more sophisticated style of such earlier novels as “Rameau’s Niece” and “The Evolution of Jane,” but her sincerity here suits both her protagonists’ youth and the impassioned era of their joint odyssey. The 1960s seem a less than ideal setting for a comedy of manners, and indeed this is not really a comedy. But Schine conveys the rapidly shifting mores of the ’60s, as well as the slowly unfolding understanding of these appealingly vulnerable characters.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940,” which will be reissued in August.
FIN & LADY
By Cathleen Schine
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 273 pp. $26