A close New York–based family copes with aging and death.
The title of Schine’s (Fin & Lady, 2013, etc.) 10th novel refers to the famous lines by British poet Philip Larkin: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do.” For Joy Bergman, who's caring for her beloved but hopelessly senile and physically failing husband and whose adult children think the answer is to get her a dog, you can replace “mum and dad” with “son and daughter.” This kind of witticism is one of the main pleasures of this novel, which introduces us to three generations of feisty characters but doesn’t give them enough action to hold our interest. The aging, the dying, the coping, and the kvetching all seem to proceed almost as slowly as they do in real life. Every time something interesting happens, such as when one of the littlest Bergmans accidentally breaks a shop window and injures a rabbi or a tiny dog is mauled by a big ferocious one, any negative consequences are resolved by the end of the chapter. A storyline about an elderly suitor who turns up professing his lifelong adoration of Joy is muted. In lieu of a plot arc, the novel focuses on the warmth the author feels for her characters and the warmth they feel for each other. “Daniel had never understood that you could love anyone as much as he loved Ruby and Cora. This love was new, born when they were born. Now life without that love coursing through him was unimaginable.”
“It’s hard to be an old Jew,” as one of the characters comments, and it’s not so exciting to read about them, either. If this is the beginning of a tsunami of books about aging by baby-boomer authors, let’s hope things pick up.