They May Not Mean To, But They Do

  • Review
By – June 3, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

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