Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Fin and Lady is Intensely New York in the 1960s. It's a Wonderful New Novel From Cathleen Schine (Visiting Boswell on Monday, July 22, 7 pm).

I’ve written before about my childhood in New York. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, partly because of talk about the new Donnell Library, and partly because I just read Cathleen Schine’s wonderful new novel, Fin and Lady, which just went on sale. 

While I was raised in Queens, I have strong memories of heading to Manhattan with my family, just to walk through neighborhoods, window shop, get a cheap meal. When I was in high school, I started going in by myself, first to read Billboard at said library, which I preferred to the Mid Manhattan branch, even though the Mid-Manhattan location was the old Arnold Constable department store, and later to take science classes at Columbia, and visit my sister who was living on the Upper West Side.

One time in college I went to New York with a fellow student and we picked up a friend of his whose family lived in a Park Avenue apartment. I was sort of flabbergasted that this said apartment stretched over two floors and was bigger than a fancy suburban home. And then later, when I was working in publishing, I would visit friends whose apartments were so tiny you could barely squeeze through the halls. Fire code? Most likely.

I have snippets of memory of that world before the corporate takeover of Manhattan. When neighborhoods were distinctive, and low rise, and artists could afford to live there. And that’s one of several reasons why I am so taken with Fin & Lady. She captures 1960s New York with such vividness, without letting the details overwhelm the story.

The story, you ask? Fin is a young boy living in Connecticut who has lost first his father and then mother to illness. His closest relative would be Lady, a half-sister (through his dad). His only previous memories of her was attending her wedding (where she didn’t show up) and then accompanying her parents on a chase through France and finally Capri to find and bring back the runaway bride.

Lady’s family is pretty wealthy and she brings Fin home to her late mom’s apartment, watched over by their housekeeper Mabel. But Lady wants more than a staid uptown home, and dreams of moving into a Greenwich Village townhouse. The rebellion of the sixties tempts her, and Fin is immersed in the world of alternative schools and sit ins while Lady juggles three distinctive beaus, a Hungarian artiste, a beefy but not particularly junior exec, and the lawyer she left at the altar, who is also Fin’s financial guardian.

Lady seems to aspire to be an Audrey Hepburn type, a sophisticate in the middle of a wild jungle, not exactly Holly Golightly, but perhaps the woman Holly Golihtly pretended to be. I’m also reminded a bit of Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, which doesn’t even take place in New York, but you kind of get the sixties girl vibe in both stories.

The thing is, the sixties might be more than a woman like Lady can handle, and the wilder things have the potential to get, the more she clamps down, perhaps even considering sending Fin to boarding school. When I think of how young she is in the story, and the burden she puts on herself, I’m not surprised about some of the decisions she makes.

The story is just packed with lovely New York details, from the legendary Schaffts and Bonwit Teller to the beloved Donnell Library (see above, and this article about its redevelopment) to even sneak little details in, like that lavender shopping bag, which was clearly from Bergdorf Goodman. I love that Lady paints at the Art Students League, where my mom’s best friend (an artist, also named Lily), took her with some frequency.

This is very much a novel that contemplates the pull between freedom and responsibility and it plays out in the choices of many of the characters, even in miniature when a student at Fin’s Greenwich Village school is dressed down for raising her hand to speak instead of saying whatever she wants. What exactly was she being trained for?

It turns out that despite owning hardcover copies of both The New Yorkers and The Three Weissmanns of Westport, I hadn’t read either. I know, everyone thinks I read the former since I sold it so hard at Schwartz, but in fact I was using other people’s recs. I didn’t lie, but could tell folks what all my trusted booksellers were saying. It was a varied lot that took to Schine, and I always see that as a good sign.

My journey to Fin & Lady started at Winter Insitute in Kansas City. They bring these authors to meet booksellers, and hope the booksellers fall in love with them and read their books. Some of these booksellers are so good they read the featured titles in anticipation of meeting the authors. Very impressive, but alas not too common with me. Jason and I got to meet Cathleen Schine, and I realized that she had to go on my to-be-read list.

I’d only read a bit of Schine before, The Evolution of Jane actually, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. I’ve always thought of Schine as being akin to Elinor Lipman in style, and I’d certainly recommend fans of one to the other, but there’s a bit more wistfulness in Schine’s work. It’s hard to describe—Lipman's are almost classic drawing room comedies, whereas there seems to be a whistfulness that permeates Schine's stories. Schine and Lipman's characters grow differently, and the pacing is a bit different, though I'd certainly recommend fans of one to the other. I'm having trouble explaining this.  In my head, there's a sort of bookend quality to the two authors. I could ask Dominique Browning, who reviewed both The Three Weissmanns of Westport and The View From Penthouse B for The New York Times Book Review and liked them both. She'd understand what I was talking about!

As you know by now, we wound up reading The Three Weissmanns of Westport for our in-store book club, and if I had more time, I would have finally read The New Yorkers too. But alas, time is one thing I don't have. I do have time to show you the original jacket of Fin & Lady. I understand why they changed it, but I still have to show it to you, being that it so cleanly matched the Alverno College billboard I passed while I was reading it.

But you probably don’t want to know about that. You want to know when are you going to meet this wonderful author for yourself and hear more about Fin & Lady? That date, my friend, is Monday, July 22, 7 pm. Trust me, you’ll get to meet her and want to read her books too.

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