Published by Sarah Crichton Books ISBN 9780062277022
Hardcover, $26, 304 pages
Cathleen Schine's newest novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a gem. It tells the story of a family who are at the stage of life where they must deal with aging parents.
The mother Joy is described by her adult daughter Molly as thus:
"They found Joy disconcerting, and they were right. She was so intimate and so remote, as remote as a faraway, nameless planet sometimes; sometimes soft and sympathetic. She was talkative, yet she heard everything you said or thought you might say. She was wise and she was deep, intuitive, the kind of person to whom people confided their darkest secrets; she was scatterbrained and easily distractible and often forgot people's darkest secrets, which, as she always said, was just as well."Joy lives with her husband, Aaron, who is suffering from Alzheimer's, in the apartment they have had for many years on the Upper West Side in New York City. Joy is caring for Aaron at home, while also still working part-time cataloguing items at a museum. The museum would like to see Joy retire, but Joy needs the job both for the money and her sanity.
Molly divorced her husband and now lives with her female partner in California. She likes her life in California, and flies home a few times a year to help organize her parents bills and medical issues. Daniel is married and lives in lower Manhattan with his wife and two pre-teen daughters. He works hard, and his responsibilities to his own family mean that he doesn't see his parents as often as Joy would like.
As Aaron seems to be getting worse, Joy has a hard time keeping up. It is too difficult to take Aaron out for walks, and they subsist almost completely on takeout food delivered from the local coffee shop. Piles of papers start to build up, and the apartment is getting too cluttered. Even the part-time housekeeper isn't helping.
Schine's moving novel deals with issues that most families will have to face- aging parents. She is empathetic to Joy's plight, and in her creates an indelible character many people will relate to. We can see how difficult it is for Joy to watch her husband failing, and to know that very soon she won't be able to care for him alone.
Molly and Daniel have their own lives to handle, and all the emotions they feel about what is happening to their parents- the guilt, anger, sadness, and frustration- are universal to adult children everywhere.
Schine gets all the details right too. You can feel the claustrophobia of Joy and Aaron's apartment, and smell the food cooking for their Thanksgiving dinner. This is a truly sensory book.
I've read some of Schine's other novels- The New Yorkers, The Three Weismanns of Westport, and Fin & Lady- and They May Not Mean To, But They Do is her best book yet. For someone as young as she is to put herself so completely into the character of Joy is a brilliant achievement. Anyone who has older parents will do well to read this book, if only to get a glimpse of what they are going through. I highly recommend it.