They May Not Mean To, but They Do
The title of Cathleen Schine’s new novel riffs on Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which explores the inevitability of parent-child dysfunction (though Larkin used much blunter language). A deeply affecting yet very funny intergenerational novel, They May Not Mean To, but They Do examines the upending of one family as their mother attempts to age in place, despite the protests from her adult children.
Joy Bergman is barely hanging on to a rent-controlled East Side Manhattan apartment and single-handedly caring for her husband, Aaron, who has developed full-blown Alzheimer’s. The pair is a constant source of worry for their adult children, but Molly lives with her wife on the West coast, and Daniel has his own family and a demanding job downtown. After Aaron dies, Molly and Daniel try more assertively to include Joy in their lives. But Joy has plans of her own, clinging to her job as a museum conservator and rekindling a relationship with an old flame, Karl—a move that enrages her children. Still, Joy struggles with depression and with finding a new sense of self in the challenging world of widowhood.
They May Not Mean To, but They Do is the fictional equivalent of Roz Chast’s brilliant memoir of dutiful daughterhood, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, though seen primarily from the point of view of the exasperated elderly parent. Schine writes about the fierce love that binds generations, but also about the tensions, fears and resentments that run high on both sides. Yet the novel is as humorous as it is compassionate. Though Schine is best known for effortless-seeming confections such as Fin & Lady and The New Yorkers, They May Not Mean To, but They Do has an extra layer of depth and dignity, making for a profound but very readable novel that is among her very best.