An eccentric woman grudgingly undertakes the “education” of a small boy left in her charge, in this flinty second novel from the Brooklyn author of the well-received debut fiction Schooling (2001).
The unnamed narrator has abandoned her (much older) German husband and taken up with Edmund, an amateur painter of some talent, who brings her to Rome, introduces her to his seven-year-old brother (also unnamed), then—for reasons that gradually, creepily emerge—abandons them both. She’s a bilious combination of Patrick Dennis’s Auntie Mame and Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie: a “hard” woman (more than one man has perceived) who has firmly distanced herself from her boringly conventional family, the aforementioned husband, her overweight housecat and virtually every Roman citizen who falls below her truculent high standards. “The boy,” who survives by weathering her crazed mood swings, learns (as we do) that beneath her maliciously witty banter (“I don’t enjoy maligning others. . . . On the other hand, it is vital to exercise our critical gifts”) lurks a delusional manic-depressive paranoid hypochondriac of Olympian proportions. Edmund returns, takes them to his mother’s rural home and tries to reshape them into something resembling a family. Simultaneously, McGowan peels away successive layers of defense mechanisms erected between the narrator and her personal history, a chronicle of youthful promise blighted by impulsive vanity, progressing through self-delusion to borderline-suicidal grandiosity (“When the time comes I will burn away, leave everyone coughing in my exhaust”) and a claustrophobic overload of hard-earned guilt. The tricky narrative thus swings continually between bitchy repartee and searching probes into the hollow core of a destroyed soul—all the more troubling because we watch its blithe corrupting influence on an innocent, though (thankfully) resilient child.
A truly original premise, artfully developed into a memorable and perversely entertaining comic horror story.