Cathleen Schine’s latest novel is a portrait of a family grappling with age, expectations, and entitlement. She incisively observes that familial squabbles — both petty and serious — create opportunities to demonstrate loyalty, comfort, and true love.
Joy and Aaron Bergman raised their children Molly and Daniel as a tightly knit unit, and the four of them have innocent, unassailable faith in each other. That faith has been tested — most strenuously by Molly leaving her husband to live in Los Angeles with another woman. Joy and Aaron are mildly befuddled by Molly “becoming a lesbian,” but Joy is acutely disappointed that Molly left New York City.
Now Aaron and Joy are old. As Aaron’s dementia progresses, Joy steadfastly believes she’s capable of caring for him, while simultaneously pining for her daughter and clucking over her son (who still lives in New York). Eventually, Joy is forced to face the limits of her abilities and the reality of Aaron’s condition. Her life is devoted to sustaining his — and being a caretaker sustains her, at least for a time. But it’s impossible to survive on love alone.
Molly and Daniel oscillate between expressing guilt over their lack of involvement in their father’s care and issuing demands that Joy meet their expectations. They’re remarkably unskilled at reading the subtext of Joy’s loneliness. Their tendency to take answers at face value, in order to retreat from offering real support, illustrates just how similar selfishness and selflessness really are. Even the best of intentions, presented for the sake of convenience, will turn sour. This collision of desire and practicality deeply challenges the Bergmans.
Indeed, the family’s inability to put sentimentality aside is off-putting. They May Not Mean To is full of artfully timed humor, but the cloying relationships of the Bergman clan nearly suffocate the story. Maybe contemporary cynicism is to blame for desiring a family with more secrets and troubles, who fight and hold grudges and whose biggest sin isn’t mere stubbornness. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to reconcile Schine’s pat characters with the wisdom the novel offers.
The best moments in the novel occur when Schine reflects on the value of dignity throughout a lifetime — that aging together means growing into each other; that growing up means pushing outward; and that being both a parent and a child complicates the relationship between parents and children. Through Aaron’s dementia, Schine also raises the question of love in relation to selfhood. When is a person no longer him- or herself? Is someone still with you as long as they’re still breathing?
Schine takes on the messy and frustrating aspects of old age, foregoing the cliché of a peaceful slide into death and the satisfaction of a life well lived. She confronts the confusing hollowness that comes from gazing at a body that was, moments ago, someone. It’s too bad that the dynamic among the Bergmans can’t be as tenderly shaded.