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A recent widower (he and his wife Mary had seemed to exemplify the old New York ideal of elegance and accomplishment), retired at the age of 60 from his law firm, Schmidt, seemingly a poster boy for the now fading world of the cultured, wealthy WASP, is vaguely melancholy, faintly discontented, stranded in his wife's handsome beachfront house in Bridgehampton. His self-involved daughter Charlotte (a devoted member of the public relations department of a tobacco company) announces her intention to marry Jon Riker, a humorless lawyer from Schmidt's firm. Schmidt, who had built a very lucrative legal career on his ability to be "always demonstrably and impeccably right," begins to feel the first stirrings of self- doubt. Does he object to Riker because he seems so one-dimensional, or because he's Jewish? And, with some amazement, he finds himself beginning an affair with a frank, exuberant waitress, a woman younger than his daughter. As Schmidt attempts to navigate increasingly turbulent waters (an outraged daughter, friends amused or appalled by his indiscretion), Begley deftly introduces long hidden pieces of Schmidt's former life. He was, it turns out, a tireless womanizer and a less-than-devoted dad. He's charmingly condescending toward those unlucky enough to be neither WASPS nor wealthy. He is, in fact, a bit of a cad. But it's one of the pleasures of Begley's increasingly dark narrative that he both reveals Schmidt's self-satisfied shortcomings and makes him nonetheless a fascinating character. And, as Schmidt faces a series of alarming problems (including his young lover's peculiar and softly menacing boyfriend), it's hard not to root for his success, for his newly aroused pleasure in life.
A sly, sharp portrait of an amoral but appealing figure, and of the declining world of privilege that has shaped him.
—The New York Review of Books
"Albert Schmidt is another of Begley's brilliant impostors, though this time an impostor unaware of his charade. He is the cultivated man—out of
Harvard, no less—unable to acknowledge his subtle strain of
Jew-hating.... About Schmidt amounts to an intriguing about-face for
Begley.... By blinding his flawed hero, Begley has painted an indelible portrait of a man with a hole where his soul should be."
"What emerges... is a poignant study of aging centered on a man whose flaws become both sinister and sympathetic. In an era of encroaching coarseness, where civility dissolves... Schmidt summons in us remembrance of elegance past.... Is he a cultured patrician, a supercilious snob or both? Whichever he is, Begley succeeds wonderfully in making us care."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Consistently subtle and intelligent, this novel ends by getting under your skin despite the unlikability of its protagonist. You are left with the feeling of having found out the complex truth behind the impeccable facade of someone you might never notice if you met him at a party."
—The New York Times Book Review
"If the sorrows of old 'Schmidtie' strike us as somewhat short of fully tragic, less than deeply moving, it's clearly intentional; Begley means for us to keep our distance—to withhold our sympathies—from his smug,
officious hero.... It's this that makes Begley's novel most interesting and nervy."
—Washington Post/Book World
"In the end, Begley has created a terribly funny, touching, infuriating and complex character in Schmidt, whose self-deceptions and imprisonment by his own world-view stand not only as a devastating portrait of a disappearing world but also sound a strangely evocative cautionary tale."
—Los Angeles Times Book Review
"In what could be called a novel of bad manners, Begley again demonstrates that he can reveal the complexities of society and personality with a clear eye and graceful style. Schmidt may not live up to today's strict standards of political correctness, but he more than meets the requirements of convincing fiction."
Decidedly, there was nothing wrong with Jon Riker. Schmidt had invited him to dinner one night--along with a group of other associates and two investment officers of a Hartford insurance company they all serviced--without in the least imagining that Charlotte would find him remarkably attractive. In fact he was surprised at her turning up, after Mary had warned her that the party would be business entertainment, one of those rank-has-its-obligations affairs older partners have to suffer through once in a while to make the hardworking young fry feel appreciated. But the next morning Charlotte said she was glad she had come. She thought Jon looked like Sam Waterston; that was her pronouncement, enough for Schmidt to get the picture. She had graduated from Harvard the previous year and was still living at home. The time to say what he really thought about Jon as his daughter's prospective beau was then, or over the course of the next few weeks. But he never told them--either Charlotte or Mary. He gave them only his office point of view: an excellent young lawyer, almost certain to become partner, except that he works much too hard. How will he find time to take Charlotte to the movies, never mind movies and dinner! Schmidt had behaved with decent consistency, of which he was rather proud, just as he would later, when he became Riker's principal, probably indispensable, supporter for partnership. Luckily for Riker, that process took place, and was concluded favorably for him, before he began sleeping with Charlotte; anyway before the word had gotten around or Mary had opened Schmidt's eyes, so that the firm did not need to face the dreaded question of whether the rule againstnepotism was about to be breached.
But even if Charlotte had not just informed him that she and Jon had made their decision--now that he thought of it, couldn't Riker have gone to the trouble of coming to Charlotte's father to ask for her hand?--and it weren't too ridiculously late to speak to Charlotte with the utmost candor, there was still nothing he could say against Riker, or, more precisely, against the marriage, that wouldn't seem to her, and perhaps even to him, once the words were out of his mouth, quirky, possessive, smacking of jealousy or envy. What could he say beyond admitting that, outside the office, he didn't care all that much for the qualities that in time would make Riker such a useful, reliable partner in that beloved firm--which Schmidt was coming to realize he missed principally as a source of income and porous barrier against self-doubt--and that surely weren't the qualities he had hoped to find in a son-in-law? According to an Arab proverb that one of his partners with oil-rich Middle Eastern clients had assured him was genuine, a son-in-law is like a pebble, only worse, because you can't shake him out of your shoe. Schmidt knew that the Romans, on the contrary, had prized these intruders. If one really loved a woman, one loved her the way a man loved his sons and his sons-in- law. Since he regretted not having sons--at work, he had had a tendency to develop a strong affection for the best of the young men who worked with him, a feeling that was generally reciprocated until the associate he had singled out as his right hand and object of loyalty became a partner and no longer needed a father figure in the firm--he had hoped to have Roman feelings for the man who married Charlotte. But how was he to bestow them on Jon Riker?
The stuff he had written about Riker, with considerable eloquence, in the critiques that, according to office procedures, followed the completion of each important assignment, was true enough: with variations appropriate to the occasion, it was like what he had told Charlotte and Mary and what became, in due course, the necessary mantra of slogans he repeated wearily at firm meetings when Jon came up for partnership. These slogans were not contradicted by Riker's other attributes, which Schmidt liked less but hadn't felt compelled to mention because they had little to do with the criteria according to which his partners judged candidates. For instance, the narrowness of that strong intelligence: What did his future son-in-law think about, apart from client matters and deadlines and the ebb and tide of bankruptcy litigation (Jon's annoying specialty, the domain of loudmouth, overweight, and overdressed lawyers, thank God Jon didn't look or sound like them), spectator sports, and the financial aspects of existence?
Jon's talk about finances was sort of a mantra too, one that Jon repeated and Schmidt despised. After his clerkship, should Jon have taken a job with a firm that paid associates more than Wood & King did? How should he evaluate the loss of income resulting from his choice, if there had been one, against the possibly lower probability of partnership at some other more lucrative place--but had he "made partner" there, what a bonanza! Now that he was a Wood & King partner, was his generation's share of income sufficient (here the pocket calculator might come out of the neatly organized attache; case, Charlotte's lavish offering), or was too much going to older types (like Schmidt, but that was left unsaid), who had not had the decency to get out when their productivity declined? Should he buy an apartment or continue to rent, was it to be a condo or a co-op, how much would it cost him to be married if Charlotte stopped working, what price tag to put on each child? The evidence of Jon's having read a book since the first volume of Kissinger's memoirs, Mary's Christmas present, was lacking. On long airplane trips, of which Jon took many, Schmidt had noticed that Jon did his "homework"--an honorable enough occupation--caught up on advance sheets, read news magazines, or stared into the middle distance. There was no pocket book tucked into Jon's litigation bag or in the pocket of his belted raincoat that looked like a Burberry. Such had been Schmidt's personal observations during the early years of their working together, when they often sat side by side in the plane, Schmidt struggling, once his own "homework" was done, to stay awake over some contraband belles lettres. Discreet interrogation of Jon had revealed only one subsequent change in his traveling habits: as the proud owner of a laptop computer, he could also use the time to write memos to files and work on his checkbook. What was this young man if not a nerd, or in the slang of Schmidt's own generation, apparently coming back into use, a wonk, a wonk with pectorals? His Charlotte, his brave, wondrous Charlotte, intended to forsake all others and cleave to a wonk, a turkey, a Jew!
Schmidt kicked the last of the stray apples. His anger was like a bad taste in the mouth.
That final indignity was unmentionable. He could not have spoken of it to Mary: a word against the Jews, and she brought all the sins of Hitler on your head, but this marriage was not a matter of civil rights or equal opportunity or, God help him, the gas ovens. To the best of his recollection, no matter how deeply or how far back he looked, Schmidt was sure he had not once in his life stood in the way of any Jew. But now he was discovering that what didn't count at W & K (which had certainly filled up with Jews since the day he had himself gone to work there) and what could even furnish him at times some eyebrow-raising sort of amusement, as it had when Jews, beginning in the seventies, had begun to move into his Fifth Avenue apartment building, or joined one of his clubs, did count heavily when it came to his family, or what was left of it! This marriage would turn Charlotte, his one remaining link with life, into a link with a world that wasn't his--the psychiatrist parents he had so far escaped meeting, grandparents on the mother's side whom Jon occasionally mentioned, possibly uncles, aunts, and cousins he hadn't yet hear about. What might they be like? That contact with them would be unpleasant, that it would put a strain on his quiet good manners and composure, he was quite sure. Before long, they would cover Charlotte like ooze from the sea; they would absorb her and leave him out; never again would he be alone with her on his own ground; the pool-house kitchen and its hostile threshold were the microcosm of his future.
1. This book is about a man whose life, as he has always known it, is about to change forever. What happens to a man who loses everything: his profession, his wife, and his daughter in a short span of time? How does he go about building a new life for himself in his sixth decade?
2. How are today's views on aging different from what they were at the turn of this century; or, perhaps, even as recently as the mid-1950s? How was a man in his sixties viewed one hundred years ago, fifty years ago? How was he "expected" to behave? How do older people today view their future, now that life expectancy has been so dramatically increased?
3. How do you think Schmidt's feelings about his own childhood and parents have affected his relationships with his wife and daughter?
4. Schmidt says he expects all lives to end badly. How does he feel about his own life? How do you think Schmidt's life will end?
5. What problems or concerns might older people have today that they might not have had eighty, or even less than forty years ago? Where might they turn for help, solace, affection, understanding? How does aging and its accompanying problems expose one's frailties and flaws? How does one go about examining one's life? Is the process of self-discovery different when you're older?
6. What do you see as lost opportunities in Schmidt's life; professionally, socially, emotionally? Do you think he regrets having retired from his firm? What do you think he misses the most? What does he have regrets about? How would you feel about stepping aside and handing over power and authority to a younger generation? How would you compensate for the losses experienced and go aboutrebuilding your life? How would you begin to give it meaning or importance?
7. Do you think Schmidt truly loved his wife? What is the significance of his marital infidelities? How do you suppose he justified them?
8. How does Schmidt cope with his alienation from Charlotte? What steps does he take or could he take to reconcile with her?
9. Why do you suppose Charlotte's character is written out of focus? Why do we only hear from her indirectly; through letters, telephone calls, and messages?
10. Why are Carrie and Schmidt attracted to one another? What qualities endear her to him? What does he offer her?
11. Why does Schmidt object to attending Thanksgiving dinner at the Riker home? What are some of the things he learns about them that surprise him? How was he wrong about them?
12. How could Schmidt's attraction to Renata Riker further complicate his relationship with Charlotte and Jon? Do you think Schmidt is jealous of her relationship with his daughter? Why do you think he is unable to accept Renata's attempts to help him understand how to deal with Charlotte?
13. Older people today are generally healthier and more vigorous than they were in previous generations. With the additional promise of greater life expectancy, there exist the probabilities of new romances and sexual encounters. What hopes, fears, expectations, might one face in reentering this role after many decades? If you were in this situation, what might you do?
14. Give some examples of Jon Riker's behavior that infuriate Schmidt. Why does Schmidt react as strongly as he does? Do you feel his objections are justified? How would you behave in his place?
15. Money seems to be a recurring theme throughout the book. Schmidt is preoccupied with working out numbers so he can maintain his style of living. How does his preoccupation with money play a role in alienating Schmidt from Charlotte? How does money help Schmidt? How does it hurt him? While Schmidt and Mary never discussed money in Charlotte's presence, there were many veiled references to it. How do you think Charlotte was affected by her parents' attitude toward money? Why does her attitude annoy Schmidt?
16. Begley writes about a very closed, privileged society of wealthy people. How do you think the "upper" and "lower" classes view one another? What sets them apart? How might one compare clannishness and anti-Semitism? Are they in any way alike? How are they different?
17. The Bridgehampton property acts to create an enormous rift between Schmidt and Charlotte. What does the house represent to each of them? Why can't Schmidt share the house with them in harmony? Why can't she accept his gift to her and Jon?
18. Schmidt is keenly observant and highly intelligent, yet he is unable to understand the reasons for his problems with Charlotte. Why do you think Mary was always the one to take care of matters concerning Charlotte instead of encouraging Schmidt to develop a closer relationship with her?
19. Anti-Semitism is often extremely subtle. How is the subject of anti-Semitism handled in this book? What do you think a bigot is? What qualities does a bigot have? Why do you think it is so difficult to write about anti-Semitism?
20. How would you describe Charlotte's feelings about her father? She accuses him of being anti-Semitic but if she believes this, why had she not objected sooner? Why now and in the manner she chooses? Why does Schmidt not consider himself to be anti-Semitic? What examples does he bring up to bolster his claim? How does his friend Gil react to Schmidt's description of Charlotte's fiancé?
21. Why are Charlotte's marriage to Jon Riker and her conversion to Judaism such a problem for Schmidt? Is it merely a question of religion? Why do you think Charlotte believes it is so important to convert? How does that news add further to Schmidt's sense of isolation?
22. Do you think Schmidt and Charlotte truly love each other? If so, then why can't they understand and accept each other's viewpoints? Is it a generational divide, a difference in values, or something else? Describe Schmidt's reaction to her requests for the family furniture and silver? Why does he object to her work on the tobacco campaign?
23. What do you think Carrie represents to Schmidt? How does he manage to develop such deep feelings for her if he is anti-Semitic? How can Charlotte accuse her father of being anti-Semitic yet object to his having "that Hispanic girl" in the house? What contradictions do you see in Charlotte?
24. Mr. Wilson taunts and frightens Schmidt, but doesn't hurt him. What is Schmidt's reaction when he discovers he has killed him? Why was Mr. Wilson stalking him?
25. How does Schmidt feel about getting older? In what way does his friend Gil mirror the changes in himself? What conflicts of values might exist between the younger and older generations? How may those generational divides contribute to the tension, anger, and frustration that fester in so many families? Are these conflicts any different from previous generations? What pressures exists today that may not have existed in earlier generations? Have you or your family had similar experiences?
26. Schmidt understands Carrie, who is younger than his own daughter, far better than he understands Charlotte. How are the two women different from each other?
27. In spite of Schmidt's many infidelities, including an affair with Charlotte's nanny, he still considers himself to have been a good husband and father. How does he explain this to himself? Do you agree with Schmidt?
28. Why do you think Schmidt decides to hire Bryan to take care of his inherited house in Palm Beach? What would it mean to have Bryan live with him and Carrie? Does Schmidt want that to happen? How has Schmidt's view of people changed after he meets Carrie and Bryan? What do these changes signify? How does Schmidt change?
Posted February 8, 2013
Posted July 13, 2006
I've bought the book for years and only until lately on a long and boring trip that I finally managed to finish it. Perhaps I am not familiar with western culture and values, but as I Chinese, I cannot image a daugther requesting her dad to take money out of his pocket to purchase her share of their house, all because the house will eventually become her property when her dad passed away, and in the meantime, she does not need to pay for the maintainence! She even dare to write to her dad (not even has the courtesy to talk to him in person) about the list of furntiure and siliverware that she would like to take away for her marriage. Schmidt may not be a faithful husband or a 100% upright person. But he does not deserve such a treatment from his daughter whom he loves and cares. How can Charlotte choose to leave Schmidt at this very moment when he lost his wife and his job, just when he needed her most.
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