Read an Excerpt
Good parents made bad citizens. That was Charles Braithwaite’s opinion, a common one in Morningside Heights. The neighborhood was populated with conscientious liberals, people who admitted their own flaws—unashamedly, as Anne Braithwaite liked to point out. Anne could see how she and Charles were a little bit that way themselves. These socially concerned men and women tended to undergo a moral shock when they first held their newborns in arms. They would look down into the grumpy little faces and strabismic little eyes, and suddenly their hatred of cruelty and injustice would morph into a bloated sense of parental obligation. From then on, they orphaned all other causes and devoted themselves to cosseting their own children. Sometimes they comforted themselves with the thought that the children would go on to change the world—maybe just by existing, so obvious was it that their intense parental investment would pay off.
The youth of Morningside Heights took no drugs. After earning high SAT scores, they attended desirable colleges and entered the professions, the arts, or the academy, where they made substantial contributions. Eventually they formed stable relationships and went on to become parents in the mold of their own mothers and fathers. There may have been one or two who once or somewhere got into serious trouble, but offhand, no one can think of an example.
Which is not to say there weren’t difficulties. Their reliable academic and professional successes aside, the children of these doting, hyperinvolved, and better-than-optimal families included quirky kids and problem kids in addition to the usual all-around super ones. Parents all too often experienced a moral aftershock when life confronted them with the unwelcome facts: that great kids can also be odd or troublesome and surprisingly hard to live with, that their fathers and mothers may someday see them off to college with guilty joy, and that sometimes a happy family produces a spectacularly unhappy child.
The Braithwaites were a case in point. They enjoyed the worldly blessings of health, money, and honor in a sustaining environment of mutual love and respect. Their quarrels and differences, free from the infection of malice, did not fester. But the eldest Braithwaite child was miserable, and her misery threatened the peace of the others both because they loved her and because she wanted to make them suffer.
Charles and Anne were musicians in their mid-forties. He was an operatic baritone who sang at the Met, mostly in secondary roles, and she was a fine pianist who had given up a performing career to teach and raise their four children: eighteen-year-old Jane, their unhappy daughter, who already showed promise as a soprano; Ellen, a precocious, caustic schoolgirl of thirteen; and two boys, aged nine and five. Both boys were musical and multiply talented, but the older one, Stuart, had a troubling tendency toward suspiciousness and eccentricity—due, in his parents’ opinion, to the fact that he was quite small for his age while Gilbert, a genial, trusting boy, was unusually tall. This unequal endowment, with its profound consequences for the brothers’ psyches, felt unjust to Stuart and also to his mother and father. But that was one of the dangers of marriage between the short, like Anne, and the tall, like Charles. “If we’d both been short,” Anne said, “there’d have been no problem. Isn’t it strange?” “Or if we’d both been tall,” Charles pointed out.
The family’s history paralleled that of their neighborhood. Anne had grown up in Morningside Heights, raised according to its long- standing tenets to invest her energies as deeply in liberal causes as in music. Indeed, she was an outstanding exemplar of what local parents yearned to produce—as good a progressive as a pianist (and as a pianist she had actually had a Carnegie Hall debut) but ultimately more interested in motherhood than either social progress or music. When she and Charles settled in Morningside Heights in the 1980s, they were typical residents of the shabby enclave of academics, writers, musicians, librarians, theologians, theater people, social workers, and film technicians who had always lived around Columbia University, to the north of Manhattan’s West Side. Through a series of oddments and accidents, they evolved into equally typical residents of the richer Morningside Heights of 2004. The transformation was unusual. Most of the moneyed people in Morningside Heights had moved in, and the hard up had been pushed out. The Braithwaites were uneasy living the same luxurious lives as the rich invaders who, by bidding up the neighborhood, had cost so many friends their homes and worlds and left the Braithwaites themselves, along with others who had weathered the calamity, to stand as false proof that it had not happened. Newcomers spoke fondly of this likeable but somewhat peculiar family of musicians, along with other remnants of the old neighborhood—the people who managed to hang on and the institutions of learning, music, and religion they clung to— as part of the appealing local color that they had moved here for.
Despite the brutal economies that had emptied the neighborhood of so many poor, elderly, and old-style middle-class people, the twentieth- century culture of Morningside Heights was not entirely obliterated; Morningside Heights propagated ideas as successfully as it did children. Old-fashioned progressive views on child rearing survived the rent rises and exorbitant co-op prices and wove a subtle retro pattern into the postmillennium social fabric. Child worship and the dream of transforming society through the rearing of virtuous children were inspirited, not destroyed, by money and competition. So central did child rearing become to upper-middle-class ambition—both moral and worldly—that childlessness came to be considered one of life’s major tragedies, and parental feelings grew so tender that one of the first rules of social intercourse prohibited public gloating over a child’s successes.
“I told Rebecca’s mother all about Jane’s troubles,” said Anne at the breakfast table, when the four Braithwaite children had gone off to school. “But she could smell the nachas anyway. I felt terrible, spreading gossip about my own daughter.”
Rebecca’s parents were a banker and a lawyer who had moved into the Braithwaites’ building in 1996, when Rebecca and Ellen were both five. Rebecca’s mother had taken in Anne’s mothering of the Braithwaite children with the same emulous hunger with which poor girls absorb the fashion sense of rich ones. She had imitated Anne so closely that she had been forced to quit her job after a couple of years. Otherwise it would have been impossible to match the standards of the Braithwaite household.
“What gossip?” Charles asked, bristling.
“About Stephen, the suspension—among other things. I had to because when she found out that Ellen made all the honors classes, she went snarky. Poor Rebecca tried so hard, and she didn’t get in any. So I sacrificed Jane.”
Charles relaxed. “I guarantee she already knew all about Jane.”
“Yes, but now she knows just exactly what we said in the fights, and about how they recommended the shrink and the Ritalin and all, and . . .”
Charles grimaced but had no remonstrances for his wife. To sacrifice some degree of family privacy to mollify Rebecca’s mother, whose virulent envy had led her to cause difficulties between Ellen and Rebecca in the past, was reasonable. “How that woman raised Rebecca,” he said. “How can it be that the child is so good and sensitive when the mother is such a lunatic?”
They considered the mystery. It was the kind of frustrating subject that tended to come up at this unpleasant, in-between time of day, after the children had left for school but before they managed to put thoughts of them aside and turn to work. They brooded over bowls of cereal-flecked milk and bite-scalloped crusts of toast.
“She may be pathological, but somehow she’s raised a super kid. And if we’re such great parents, why are all our kids so quirky?” Anne asked. “All right, I could see maybe one or two. It happens. But all four—that’s no accident.”
“Absurd,” said Charles, offended. “Ellen isn’t a bit quirky. Neither is Gilbert. Stuart’s a bit of a problem, but—”
“Well, I guess there’s my answer,” said Anne, “if you can’t even see it. You wait till Ellen has a boyfriend. You’ll think Jane was a conformist.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with Jane except your mother.” Helen preferred Jane, her first grandchild, over the others and in Charles’s opinion spoiled her; that’s why Jane had become impervious to criticism and correction. He would have been surprised to know that many people thought Charles and Anne themselves were at fault. They were too invested in this girl’s unusual musical talents to see her for what she was. Or so people told each other, in the firm, didactic tones they used to condemn obvious parenting errors—but only when the parents were not around to benefit from the lesson.
Charles’s reference to Anne’s mother was an invitation to quarrel; they had been arguing about Helen and Jane for more than ten years. But Anne only gave him a look that accused him of breaching their truce on the subject. “I’m just hoping this obsession with Stephen will subside,” she said, “now that she’s a senior and college is on her mind.”
The previous spring, Jane, then seventeen, had fallen for Stephen Delacort, a bright, troubled boy who lived on the East Side and attended a prestigious school that often shared activities with Jane’s prestigious school. They met in the course of a joint production of West Side Story in which Jane played Maria.
“That’s what I’ve been thinking,” Charles said, more hopefully than confidently. “At a certain point, the romance of his problems is going to wear off, and they’re just going to be problems.”
“Yes, but until she gets to Juilliard and meets boys with interests more like hers, he really may be the best out there. I have to admit that sometimes I can see the attraction to Stephen, especially when she brings home anyone else.”
Jane had had only three involvements with boys that her parents knew of, none satisfactory. Her first boyfriend was the profoundly depressed son of a Queens dry cleaner whose freakish math talent had earned him a scholarship to an elite private school. There, relegated to the sad society of the marginal, he stewed daily in a broth of social disregard and contempt until he fell to pieces. Jane comforted him in his torments for at least six months, until he had his breakdown, dropped out of school, crawled back to Queens, and disappeared. The second boy, like Jane herself, had great musical talent, but he was so peculiar that Anne and Charles regarded him as disturbed, perhaps slightly autistic. Jane, intolerant of her own family’s smallest failure of understanding and empathy, accepted a complete lack of these qualities in this boy and exercised her own capacities for them on his behalf so earnestly that after three months she fell out of love owing to exhaustion. Jane’s relations with girls were even worse than her relations with boys.
Charles knew that his own judgment, where the children were concerned, was often skewed by a lifelong sense of grievance that grew out of his own unhappy childhood and frustrated ambition. He had married Anne for her blithe hopefulness and good-natured insight, her tender, understanding heart, and he still loved her for these virtues. But he disliked her habit of sharing them outside their own family, especially with troubled people like Stephen. Anne made a specialty of empathizing with demented people, in Charles’s opinion. Obviously, Jane imitated her. If the kids were quirky, Anne’s accepting attitude toward offbeat and misshapen minds probably had as much to do with it as anything. Charles refused to see anything good or attractive in Stephen Delacort and despised him wholeheartedly.
When they were juniors, Jane and Stephen had been suspended from their respective schools after disappearing together in the course of Jane’s class trip to Boston. Stephen had shown up at the Museum of Fine Arts in the middle of the tour, and Jane had sneaked off with him, whispering to classmates to tell Ms. Liu and Mr. Fein that she’d see them later. The outrage of Jane’s teachers, who felt obliged to inform the police, as well as that of her classmates, the school officials, and her parents, was boundless—no matter that she showed up on time at the hotel for dinner, or that she had thought she was reachable by a cell phone that had in fact gone dead. Their behavior was grossly inconsiderate, selfish, and immature.
For several weeks after Jane’s three-day suspension, Charles had refused to let her see or call Stephen. He neglected to forbid computer contact, however, and the two of them had spent the entire period messaging and e-mailing. Even so, Jane had been unable to eat during the separation and, having been fashionably slender to begin with, grew so extremely thin that her parents were alarmed. In defeat, they went to her room for the last in a series of tense showdowns and agreed that for the next two months she could go out with Stephen once a week, if she was home by ten, and could have him over once a week. After that, they’d see.
Jane, at least, had had sense enough to be sheepish about her misbehavior, if not genuinely remorseful. But Stephen seemed indifferent to the disapproval heaped on the two of them. When Charles tried to talk seriously with him, he didn’t apologize, didn’t even say he was sorry that people had worried. Charles detected something jeering in his eyes, something snide in the very angle of his hip as he stood there in front of him. More or less, he was laughing in Charles’s face. This was all the more frustrating because the boy had no parents whom Charles felt comfortable calling and complaining to, for both of them were workaholic lawyers who had effectively abandoned their son except to appear at school to defend him fiercely in his frequent jams. Yes, the kid had problems, but his solutions were shallow, Charles told Anne.