Fin & Lady

Into the doldrums of this long summer, heat pressing down, humidity sapping the will, slips Fin & Lady, a cool, sweet breeze of a book. Set in 1960s Greenwich Village as two orphans try to form a family, Cathleen Schine’s newest novel reads like a fairy tale, a sunlit story wrapped around a dark core.

It’s 1964 when we meet Fin — only eleven years old, attending his mother’s funeral. Though no one thinks it’s a good idea, his mother’s will has named his half sister, Lady, as his guardian. (” ‘I don’t think she had much choice, dear,’ Mrs. Pounds whispered to him. ‘There was no one else, was there?’ “) Lady, who has also lost her mother, shares a father with Fin, the late Hugo Hadley. A hard-living financier, Hugo had an unexpected quirky side, which led him to name his daughter Lady, his son after the final frame of a French film: FIN.

Fin is undone by his mother’s death, and by the fact that Lady has come to claim him. But Lady is so vivid, so different and compelling, that her presence jolts him — and everyone else in the church — into a different reality. “The other mourners stared at Lady, and why wouldn’t they?” Schine writes. “She stood out. She vibrated, almost, in that quiet church. She was beautiful,” with a “tentative wildness and reckless dignity.”

Though they met once before, when Fin was five and Lady was an eighteen-year-old runaway bride, they’re strangers now. Lady takes Fin from the sleepy Connecticut dairy farm where he has been living and spirits him into Manhattan, a surreal nighttime trip in her bright blue convertible. There, because Lady thinks the two remaining months of the school year aren’t worth enrolling for, she fills Fin’s new city life with adventure — trips and gifts and games and Broadway musicals.

It’s a change so profound, Fin has trouble believing it’s real. And so might anyone. Lady’s mother left her a fortune when she died, so money is abundant. The siblings soon move from the luxurious Upper East Side apartment where Lady was raised, to a small brownstone in Greenwich Village she has just purchased. In this world free of any adults (Lady doesn’t qualify) and of all responsibility, it’s as though Eloise has turned twenty-four, decamped the Plaza, and moved into a groovy pad to play house with her kid brother.

Life in the Village settles into a rhythm of sorts. Fin finally goes to school, a progressive one where kids sit on the floor, call the teachers by their first names, and never have to take tests. Schine, who surprisingly skimps on the physical details of Greenwich Village in the ’60s, nails the era’s zeitgeist via the classroom: “They began each day with Community Meeting, usually a song by Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger, once with Pete Seeger actually there to lead them…. In Language Arts, they read and discussed the liner notes of Bob Dylan albums and made more posters.”

Lady, who is determined to marry before she turns twenty-five, gives to Fin the task of finding her a mate. Soon, three would-be suitors are caught in Lady’s entrancing orbit. Fin, meanwhile, carves out a life of his own. Though the turbulence of the ’60s laps at the edges of his and Lady’s lives, Schine keeps their world gauzy enough that even riots, assassinations, and the Vietnam War feel far away.

By the time Lady blows her self-imposed marriage deadline for the third time, her lovers still in her thrall, Fin blows up. With a fifteen-year-old’s callous honesty, he calls Lady a coward. A day later, she vanishes.

It’s bad news for Fin but great news for us. The tale, while charming, has stalled, and Fin has delivered the kick in the pants it sorely needed. What comes next is the heart of the book, an idyll on the isle of Capri. Lady finally falls in love — madly in love — and in the unexpected consequences gets a real story to play. For Schine, it’s a chance to revel in a locale that she clearly adores:

Above, an arcade of lemons hung down, colossal lemons, and the sudden change from the glare of the street to the dappled shade was almost shocking.There was a garden and a terrace and steps to a small, cool white house. And from the windows upstairs, you could see beyond the other cool, shaded white villas to the sea.

It’s not just the landscape of Fin & Lady that changes at this point but the tone as well. What was sharp and wry in the New York chapters is now, if not sentimental, at least filled with sentiment. Lady, who saved Fin at the start of the book, soon finds herself in dire need in Capri. Fin, no longer an orphan but part of a family, now returns the favor.

Whimsical and witty, Fin & Lady offers escape yet still has has enough heart to keep you thinking after the last page is turned. At the risk of damning with faint praise — Schine has written a perfect book for the evanescent air of summer.