In the Family Way: An Urban Comedyby Lynne S. Schwartz
Roy, a psychotherapist, and his first wife, Bea, a caterer, are the linchpins of an extended family dispersed throughout an apartment building on New York's Upper West Side. Around them cluster their four children with assorted friends and lovers; Roy's next two wives, one of them stolen from a neurotic parent; and Bea's lover (the Russian emigres superintendent),… See more details below
Roy, a psychotherapist, and his first wife, Bea, a caterer, are the linchpins of an extended family dispersed throughout an apartment building on New York's Upper West Side. Around them cluster their four children with assorted friends and lovers; Roy's next two wives, one of them stolen from a neurotic parent; and Bea's lover (the Russian emigres superintendent), lesbian artist sister, and caustic mother.
Blending satire and sympathy, Lynne Sharon Schwartz takes aim at contemporary social and sexual behavior as this confused but clever cast of characters, with their entanglements and betrayals, seeks love and happiness in the free- for-all nineties. Blinded by self-deception, and driven by self-gratification, they couple and uncouple as they struggle to redefine the idea of family. In the
Family Way combines the frothiness and bounce of a sitcom with the literary elegance of an accomplished and wryly serious writer. Jane Austen would definitely approve.
To create her sixth novel, Lynne Sharon Schwartz selects choice ingredients (marriage, family, life on Manhattan's Upper West Side) from her previous works and blends them into a literary froth. The culinary metaphor is apt, as Bea, the central character of In the Family Way, runs a catering business. As the story opens, she's whipping up canapes while simultaneously baby-sitting her grandchild; fielding panicked phone calls from her mother, Anna; welcoming her teenage daughter, Shimmer (nee Sara), home from school and chatting with her younger sister, May, a lesbian artist.
At 49, Bea has graying hair but a face that retains "the lively hopefulness of youth." Throughout the novel, she acts as a sort of nurturer in chief, feeding strangers for a living while also providing emotional sustenance to her large extended family, most of whom live, as she does, in a 12-story apartment building just off Central Park West that Anna owns. This contrivance enables them to pop in on Bea at any time, for comforting advice or for a slice of her lemon-chiffon pie.
Schwartz wryly acknowledges the enforced coziness of her setting by citing, in one of the novel's epigraphs, an aphorism by James Kaplan: "The true narrative form of our times is the sitcom." Thus, as Bea is putting the finishing touches on her hors d'oeuvres, her ex-husband -- Roy, a therapist, who lives downstairs -- is being seduced by his second ex-wife, Serena, who has left him for Bea's sister, May. (The two women live in the penthouse and, wanting a baby, have settled on Roy as the handiest source of good genes.)
Schwartz moves the story along through short scenes and punchy dialogue. Her players search for love, find it, decide they've made unsatisfying choices and move on to new partners. Rapid shifts in perspective give the multiple characters distinctive voices, but they also rein in Schwartz's formidable ability to fully evoke fictive worlds. In her 1983 novel Disturbances in the Field, for instance, you felt yourself being immersed, chapter by chapter, in the textures and rhythms of family life. The new book moves too briskly for such luxury, although an extended flashback chronicling the preceding decade in the life of Bea, Roy and their family supplies accretions of domestic detail that provide some needed depth. Schwartz is especially good here on Anna's encroaching senility and her sexual longings, which remain as fierce as those of her children.
While In the Family Way generally lives up to its subtitle, An Urban Comedy, there's no plethora of laugh lines. Rather, Schwartz makes a brave attempt to treat serious matters lightly, exploring Bea's guiding contention that "keeping the family together is more important than sexual jealousy...that passes." As Bea practices it, this philosophy means endless tolerance and an elastic definition of family. As Roy applies it, it means a lingering hope of slipping back into Bea's bed: "Never say never, as he often told his despairing patients."
Schwartz's own view is one of detachment; the narrative tone is even or else gently mocking of these self-indulgent characters. In one telling scene, young Shimmer responds to her mother's reminder to use birth control with her boyfriend by spitting out: "But we're not even doing it yet...just because the rest of you are always jumping into bed, it doesn't mean I have to be the same way."
This, finally, may be Schwartz's point. In matters of love, sex and family, you have to find your own way -- and be prepared to live with the consequences.
- HarperCollins Publishers
- Publication date:
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- 5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.84(d)
Read an Excerpt
Introducing the Family: One Day and Night
No! Never! It's totally out of the question!"
"Why so hasty, Roy?" Serena chided him with an intimate smile. "You weren't so stubborn when we were married. Can't you even entertain the notion?"
"Entertain? I've been entertaining it for two minutes and that's more than enough. You're not even talking about a quick, uh, a quickie. You're talking about a lifetime commitment."
At the word "commitment," her smile shifted to one of maddening indulgence. Roy's former and second wife sat at her ease in the reclining chair as she had often done during the five years of their marriage--long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle, clogs dangling from flawless feet. It was hot, but Roy, along with his extended family, disliked air-conditioning: a tribal prejudice. A breeze blew in the open window, ruffling the slender, prongy leaves of the spider plant, making magazine pages turn as if they had invisible readers. Serena was wear-ing shorts and a man's white shirt tied at the midriff--maybe even his shirt. Was there a word, it would naturally be French, for the spoils of divorce, the counterpart of trousseau? Her skin suggested an ad for suntan lotion. A devotee of physical fitness, she worked out at the local health club; when she wasn't plying her trade as a massage therapist-a vocation that Roy, a true therapist, tacitly placed on the outer limits of the helping professions--or urging on the recalcitrant in her capacity of personal trainer, Serena engaged in various forms of locomotion: bicycling, running, Rollerblading. In her blades she was even taller than the mildly imposing Roy.
Studying her, he was threatened by anoncoming wave of anger at the wreck of what had been for him a happy marriage, as marriages go; he enjoyed being married, was not hard to please. But that was an old issue by now, an old tired anger even; he ducked under it as he would have in the ocean, and it passed him by, leaving him calm if a bit breathless. To confront this latest outrage.
"Okay. Let's entertain it for a minute. Why this sudden desire for motherhood? You never wanted any when we were married. You do remember1--"
"We wouldn't have been good parents together, Roy. It never felt, I don't know, right."
"I don't know what you mean. I'm a very good parent."
"You definitely are. I didn't mean that. I meant us as a pair." She was out of the chair in one swift motion, loping over to the couch to loom above him, her pelvis at eye level. He could smell the familiar odor of her sweat and hair conditioner and something else, something new, like lilacs.
"I wasn't ready then. And it wouldn't have been fair to you either. But it's different now, with May. We've been together almost three years-I know we're going to last. It feels settled. We want to be a family. A little family within the bigger family, I mean."
"Well, that's just dandy." Roy sprang up and walked to the window; there were the patient joggers lapping their way around the reservoir like souls condemned. They were visible because the building next door had been torn down, providing a park view-temporary, but construction in New York was famously slow. The view was a boon, but the joggers were oppressive in their endless motion. With foolhardy exceptions, they retreated at night, but no matter how early in the morning he looked out, there they were, Serena possibly among them. She had that doggedness. "Can't you imagine how I feel, hearing you talk this way?"
"Oh, Roy." She came up behind him and placed a consoling hand on his shoulder. "Is it still so painful? After all, now you have. . . Lisa, is it?''
"That's not the point. A woman, Serena. A woman. After all those years together. It makes me feel like a fool."
"Well, you shouldn't. It's not your fault. You were very nice and you did your best. I've told you. Women like you, you shouldn't need reassuring on that score. I never wanted to deceive you. I just didn't know." She smiled with cunning. "Can I help it if I was a late bloomer?"
"Stop giving me your naive speech." He poked her shoulder gently. "It doesn't suit you.''
"So, will you reconsider? Maybe we should discuss it sitting down. Come."
"I won't reconsider. I won't even consider. Why me, anyway? Can't you just register at a sperm bank or something?"
"You're much more fun than a sperm bank."
"I'm glad you think so."
"Of course I think so. And this way May and I know exactly what we're getting." She had led him back to the couch; now her hand was beneath his shirt collar.
"Well, no. You can't say May knows what she's getting, can you?" He had to grin despite himself. One thing they had shared was a sense of humor; that is, she had laughed at his jokes. He had a feeling that wry little jokes would not be a highlight of his future life with Lisa.
"Not in that sense, I guess not." She was unbuttoning his shirt and he submitted. Let her be the aggressor for once. He could toy with her just as she had done with him. "Wait!" He pushed her hand away. "What's that noise?"
"It's only the window washers in the hall."
"Bea is so efficient." He sighed. Bea, his first wife, lived upstairs; her mother owned the building, but with eighty-year-old Anna in decline, Bea had gradually assumed its management.
Serena was curled up close to him, sitting on her heels. She raised her arms and began making a braid of her straw-colored hair. That hank of hair must be awfully hot. Didn't lesbians usually have short hair? Serena hadn't cut hers when she converted. "Why you, anyway? I mean, you and I have had our day. I'm surprised you didn't send May down here. Trap me with novelty."
Meet the Author
Lynne Sharon Schwartz is the author of eleven books, including the novels The Fatigue Artist and Leaving Brooklyn and two short story collections. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize Stories, The Best American Essays, and many other places, and her reviews, essays, and satirical pieces have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. Her books have been nominated for the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. She lives in New York City.
Praise for Lynne Sharon Schwartz:
"Lynne Sharon Schwartz fixes upon the world an anthropologist's clear eye, as though the contemporary, familiar-seeming people she writes about were members of a lost tribe whose habits and ways she has documented." Daphne Merkin, Los Angeles Times
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