Rameau's Niece

Rameau's Niece

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by Cathleen Schine

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 In this delightful novel from an author who "has been favored in so many ways by the muse of comedy,"* we meet Margaret Nathan, the brilliant but forgetful author of an unlikely bestseller. Happily married to a benevolently egotistical, slightly dull but sexy professor, Margaret seems blessed--until she finds herself seduced by an eighteenth-century


 In this delightful novel from an author who "has been favored in so many ways by the muse of comedy,"* we meet Margaret Nathan, the brilliant but forgetful author of an unlikely bestseller. Happily married to a benevolently egotistical, slightly dull but sexy professor, Margaret seems blessed--until she finds herself seduced by an eighteenth-century novel she discovers in the library.

Wrapped in its lascivious world, Margaret begins to imitate its protagonist, embarking on a hilarious jaunt around Manhattan in search of renewed passion. Will she find fulfillment through her escapades or settle for her husband? Part romantic comedy, part intellectual parody, Rameau's Niece is wise, affecting, and thoroughly entertaining.

* New York Review of Books

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A bestselling author grows infatuated with a lascivious 18th century novel in Schine's gem-like, comic novel. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Although she considers herself happily married to a gregarious Englishman who teaches at Columbia University and is an inveterate quoter of poetry, Margaret Nathan, author of a best-selling scholarly biography, finds that her equilibrium is thrown when she chances upon Rameau's Niece , the manuscript of an 18th-century French erotic novel. Haunted by the sensual images that passages from Rameau's Niece have triggered, Margaret finds herself sexually attracted to a woman friend, a gay male friend, her dentist, and several other acquaintances, and she begins to question the viability of her marriage. Schine controls her quirky plot line with the same wit and style demonstrated in her earlier novels, Alice in Bed (o.p.) and To the Birdhouse ( LJ 5/15/90). She satirizes marriage, philosophy, intellectuals, sexuality, and the relentless search for self-knowledge through Margaret's efforts at fulfillment and liberal quotes from Rameau's Niece . Brainy but forgetful and shy, despite her accomplishments, Margaret is a refreshing character. Recommended for most collections.-- Harriet Gottfried, NYPL
Martha Schoolman
This is a clever and screamingly funny novel set in New York's contemporary academic / literary / cultural scene. It is a world notoriously vulnerable to satire and caricature, but Schine's portrayal has a playful quality arising from its having been written by someone who is clearly on friendly terms with the people she is teasing. The heroine is Margaret Nathan, a young but chronically forgetful Renaissance scholar of unwitting celebrity (she's just written a best-seller), who is completely inept at cocktail parties. The plot is framed by Margaret's discovery of a manuscript of a French novel forgotten in a library, a novel in which a male teacher explores the connections between scholarly and erotic knowledge with a female pupil. As Margaret busies herself translating it, her life begins to reenact its contents with some hilarious and touching twists.

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Chapter One

There is a kind of egotism that shrinks the universe; and
there was Edward’s kind. It dominated the world not by limiting
it, but by generous, almost profligate recognition of everything,
like sunlight, illuminating whatever it touched, and touching
whatever it could.
 Margaret’s husband was a wonder to her, a loud, handsome
Englishman, a Jew from Oxford with gray hair that stuck up in
tufts, like an East European poet’s, an egotist whose egotism was
of such astonishing proportions that he thought the rest of the
world quite marvelous simply because it was there with him.
 Margaret Nathan was herself a person of no mean ego, although
she knew her own egotism shone less like the sun than
like a battery-operated flashlight, swinging this way and that way,
lighting short narrow paths through the oppressive darkness of
other people. Margaret was a demanding person, hard on herself,
certainly; harder by far on everyone else.
 But turning her restless beam toward Edward, she could find
nothing there to be hard about. As to Margaret’s demanding nature,
she felt immediately that here was a safe haven for it. Ed-
ward seemed to demand demands, so that he might have the joy
of satisfying them.
 Margaret marveled at her husband, awed that he had come
to be hers at all. They met in New York when he was visiting an
old friend of his and her boyfriend at the time, Al Birnbaum, a
Marxist graduate student who spoke, in so far as he was able, like
William F. Buckley. It occurred to Margaret that at some secret,
buried level Al aspired not to change the world, not really, but
to present the opposing view on “Firing Line”—to costar. She
could envision him quite clearly: slumped, languorous and slack,
in one of those low-backed chairs, right beside Bill, his own head
rolling back on its own pale neck, the evil twin of the evil twin.
 She took one look at his friend Edward, who was looking
rather closely at her, and she saw that he was looking at her in
that way that suggested that his old friend was not, after all, such
an old friend. And she looked back at him in a way that she hoped
said, Nor of mine.
 “Why, you must come with me, of course,” he said when he
heard she was writing her thesis about an eighteenth-century female
philosophe. He took her hand in both of his. “What a wonderful
idea. We’ll visit her château. Did she have a château?
Surely the woman had a château! I was planning to go in the autumn,
through France to the Alps, into Italy. A long and leisurely
trip across Europe by car. We’ll stop at Venice. Then we’ll turn
around and come back. Will you come with me? Of course you
will. Oh God, what luck.”
 They were joking, playing around in front of the Boyfriend.
But the Boyfriend wasn’t paying much attention (he was sick of
Margaret, who had become increasingly unpleasant, subscribing
to Dissent and reading long, liberal anticommunist articles aloud
to him); and Margaret and Edward, fooling and flirting in that
self-conscious and ostentatious way one employs when one is indeed
joking or when one is wholly in earnest, made a mock promise
to meet the next night (ha ha ha, went the chorus), which they
both breathlessly kept.
 Madame de Montigny’s château had long ago turned to dust,
but Edward Ehrenwerth did take Margaret on a trip across Europe
that fall just the same. They drove in a gentle, gray mist from
London to the ferry, where Edward then had a long and apparently
satisfying chat with one of the crewmen about model trains,
then on to their first stop, a renovated farmhouse in a village
just north of Paris, belonging to some friends of Edward’s. Jean-
Claude and Juliette, two exquisitely thin persons in identical,
droopy black cashmere sweaters, were French academics who
studied and taught American literature: he specialized in neo-
Gothic romances written by former housewives, she in slim, laconic
novels of a style she referred to as minimalisme. They pored
over paperbacks and called them texts.
 “You don’t mind that these books are, you know, shitty?” Margaret
asked after several glasses of the wine that had been brought
ceremoniously from a cool cellar.
 “But on the contrary, American culture, this is its vitality, life’s
blood, this”—thees is what he actually said—“aah, how shall I say
it, this, this—”
 Sheet, Margaret thought. Thees sheet.
 “And you know, such judgment,” Juliette interrupted, “such
criticism is so patriarchal, so very, very logocentric.”
 “Margaret, Margaret, literature is, is what?” cried Jean-
Claude. “The acquisition and distribution of cultural capital!”
Jean-Claude, having warmed noticeably to both the wine and to
his subject, slapped Margaret heartily on the back. “Good? Bad?
Pooh! The project of the Enlightenment is dead! Invert the hier-
archy of judgment!” He raised his glass and laughed. “Long live
the liberation of the signifier!”
 “Well,” said Edward, after joining the toast, “the wine is awfully
good. Thank God, my dears, you haven’t inverted that particular
 “Ah, well, the wine,” said both the host and hostess, grinning
with pride, shrugging in their lovely, loose sweaters. “The wine—
of course.”

In honor of the visiting American, Juliette had adapted her cuisine,
making hamburgers. Then Edward and Margaret retired
to the guest room, which was the entire top floor of the house,
a beautiful room, and when she saw it, Margaret thought, with
some envy, Ah, the French, so much taste, so little brain, for the
room was decorated in the most luxurious velvets and brocades
and tasseled cabbage-rose drapes and a Herman Miller sofa and
butterfly chairs and original Eames and Knoll pieces, a marvelous,
elegant, witty combination, a happy marriage of minimalisme
and Gothic romance.
 Outside, the wind howled, rattling the shutters. Margaret
sank her head into the square feather pillows and listened. Creak
creak. Clunk clunk. “Is this the attic?” she said. “Are we in the attic?”
 “I suppose it is. The attic. That sounds a bit portentous. What
will happen here? What will happen here tonight? This very drear
and drafty night? Perhaps the enraged Enlightenment will haunt
us, armed with sharpened quill. ‘I have been wronged!’ Ah, Juliette
and Jean-Claude—they open cultural doors. They are cultural
 “Did you see the door of their refrigerator?” Margaret said. Juliette
and Jean-Claude had proudly shown them the refrigerator,
a high-tech, extremely wide, remarkably shallow apparatus behind
a door of elaborately carved wood.
 “Yes,” Edward said. “Theirs is a very pure and cerebral socialism.”
 Creak creak, said the shutters.
 Margaret picked up a paperback from the bedside table. The
cover showed a dark-haired (raven-haired, she corrected herself)
woman, her head thrown back, and beside her a beautiful
black woman, head thrown back too, both of whom seemed to
be bound, in an indistinct way (perhaps they were just sort of tangled)
on a dock. The book was called Desire’s Dominion.
 “Well, they’re very considerate, your friends, aren’t they?” She
lay back, closed her eyes, and listened to the wind outside. “Do
you like France, Edward?”
 Edward leaned down and whispered, “ ‘Thanks to the human
heart by which we live, thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
to me the meanest flower that blows can give thoughts that do often
lie too deep for tears.’ ”
 “To whom is that addressed?” she asked. “Who is the meanest
flower that blows? Me or France?”
 “Neither. It’s my manifesto. Neither of you is in any way mean.
I just like Wordsworth. And you. And France.”
 “How very un-British of you.”
 But Edward had spent most of his childhood summers in
France. It was where he’d met Jean-Claude, on one of those summer
holidays. Margaret thought of Jean-Claude and Edward,
skinny boys in skimpy but still baggy bathing trunks, digging
among the rocks on the Normandy shore. She thought of the
“Immortality” ode. Now, whenever she thought of Jean-Claude,
she would think of Wordsworth’s lines, she would remember a
boy she never met, until he’d become a considerate, fatuous post-
modern man, on a beach she’d never seen, and tears would come
to her eyes. How annoying; to be so vulnerable to poetry, to Edward.
 “Did you ever see Splendor in the Grass?” she said, as some
kind of revenge. “That was a post-Gothic romance.”

Before that trip, Margaret never drank, not even wine; and she
rarely drank after it. But during those weeks, she was quite thoroughly
drunk every day.
 The sun came up each morning to find her snoring in the
starched white sheets of some plump little pension bed. No, she
thought, when Edward tried to wake her. No, you see, I’ve moved
in, I’m quite settled here and cannot be shifted, not ever, certainly
not by you, Edward, whoever you are. And through halfopen
eyes she watched him get dressed, marveling at how the
British could have conquered the world with such skinny, sunken
 “Maybe you should wear tight pants tucked into boots, you
know?” she said. “Like Mick Jagger.”
 Sometimes she could pull him back to bed, sometimes not.
She didn’t care. She didn’t care about anything except scenery
and wine and food and pictures in echoing galleries and churches
in echoing squares and Edward in the same ill-fitting brown suit.
 Driving through the Rhone valley, passing a party-cake castle
in the distance, rushing to make a reservation at a four-star restaurant,
still hours away, Margaret leaned her forehead against
the cool glass of the window and thought, This is the last phase
of my long, long childhood. This is the last time I will sit in a
car, still drunk from lunch, staring at fairy castles while someone
else drives and worries and frets and checks the road map and the
odometer. It’s the first time, too, but I know what I mean.
 Rows of poplars lined the road. The sun had come out from
the clouds, which now glowed and reddened. This is bliss, Margaret
thought. No wonder Edward likes Juliette and Jean-Claude.
No wonder people drink wine, so red and velvety, rolling on your
tongue. Margaret let her head fall back. She closed her eyes.
 “Tu baves, ma cherie,” Edward said gently, patting her knee.
 “I’m what?” Margaret said.
 “Drooling, darling.”

The restaurant was dark and quiet and seriously comfortable.
Yum, yum, Margaret thought, gazing lazily at the menu. Yum,
yum. Little lambs and little bunny rabbits and little fluttery
quail—all manner of gentle, innocent beasts. I will have pork, the
forbidden flesh scorned by centuries of my ancestors, but big and
ugly. Yum, yum, yum. Medallions of pork with chestnuts.
 “Too many pets on the menu,” she said. “If I ran this joint, I
would offer boeuf sous rature. Get it, Edward?” She heard herself
 “Yes, Margaret, I get it,” Edward said.
 He was not laughing, but looking at her rather dryly. Still,
she could not stop herself. What was the point of having read so
much incomprehensible Derrida if one could not make philistine
deconstruction puns? “Sous rature” she continued. “ ‘Under
erasure.’ And then they’d serve you—nothing! They’d take the
beef off the plate!”
 “Is this what they teach you poor children in graduate school
these days?”
 “And then on the menu you could draw that line through the
word boeuf, as the deconstructionists do in order to denote when
a word is, well, when a word is whatever it is that makes them
draw that line through it . . .”
 As she rambled on, drunk and delighted with her erudition,
Edward ignored her and ordered the wine, which was even better
than what they’d drunk at lunch. She held the glass to her lips
and drank slowly. If she was not mistaken, Edward was talking to
the waiter about medieval husbandry. She could see the lights in
the dim restaurant reflected in her wine glass, in the wine-dark
wine. Wine-dark wine. She giggled. She could see the lights twinkling
there, like stars, like stars on a dark night. Oh, how banal.
Oh, how sublime.
 She staggered to bed that night and lay staring at the ceiling
as Edward untied her shoes and recited in Latin a Catullus poem
about a stolen napkin, and she thought she would marry him,
would have to marry him, that it was a necessity, a rule of nature,
like gravity. If, of course, he would have her.
 “ ‘Give back my napkin!’ ” he shouted, straddling her, pinning
her arms to the bed. “ ‘Or await three hundred hendecasyllables!’ ”

The next day they drove to Les Baux, the cliff-top ruins of a castle
where some medieval nobleman had grilled the heart of a poet
and served it to his wife for dinner. When that lady had finished
her meal and was told the ingredients, she said the dish had been
so sweet that she never wanted anything else to pass her lips, and
jumped off the cliff.
 “Ah, the goyim,” Edward said.
 They drove to Vaucluse, where Petrarch had written his love
poems to Laura, and to Avignon, where Margaret came down
with a fever and stayed sweating and shivering in the little lowceilinged
hotel room within the city’s high walls; and from her
damp, febrile pillow she wondered if she would die right now,
right here, dissipated with drink and lovemaking and museumvisiting.
 When she recovered, they drove to the Italian Alps and spent
the night in an almost empty ski resort where she read while Ed-
ward held a long, quiet, serious discussion that Margaret could
not understand with the Austrian chef’s eight-year-old son. Edward
knew seven languages, and accepted only with the poorest
grace that he could speak just one of them at a time. The others
were always waiting, eager and impatient, shifting from foot to
foot like children, until, at last, one of them would be allowed to
thunder out, full speed ahead. Edward spoke with resonant, distinct
enjoyment, loud and clear, savoring each word, as if the different
languages tasted good. He was a show-off, talking, laughing,
sometimes singing loudly, without fear, sharing his own
wonder of himself. Margaret was so fully in love with him now
that she never knew if the flushed confusion she was experiencing
was from the wine or her boisterous companion.
 “For our honeymoon,” he said the next morning as Margaret
drove the left-handed English car on the right-handed Italian
road, “I propose—”
 “But you never have proposed, you know.”
 “I propose Sri Lanka—Ceylon, as we old stick-in-the-mud imperialists
prefer to call it. We shall discover the meaning of life on
the scented isle. When bored with copulation, we can go up to
Kandy and regard the Buddha’s tooth.”

When Margaret woke up in the Alps, the air was so clear she
blinked. Driving on the winding road, toward Italy, toward a
whole new land of new wines and new paintings and new beds
to share with her new fiancé, she stared ahead at the narrow,
climbing vine of a road, and her heart pounded with disbelieving
pleasure. Edward, in the mountains, was required by nature
to recite Romantic poetry. He recited poetry as habitually as other
people cleared their throats. Verse was preverbal: a preparation
for speech, an ordering of one’s thoughts and feelings, an exquisite
sketch, a graceful, generous, gratefully borrowed vision. Mar-
garet understood this and listened to his voice, as clear as the air,
as self-consciously grand as the surrounding peaks, as happy as a
child’s, and then she drove off the mountain. Not all the way off
the mountain, she noticed. Just aiming off the mountain, really.
 “Shortcut, darling?”
 Margaret never forgot driving off the mountain, and she never
forgot how Edward pretended she wasn’t shaking, how he made
quiet jokes that guided her back to the road and back to the world
where cars were aimed at Turin rather than at a heavily wooded
 She drove slowly, with determination, ecstatic that she had not
rolled hideously to a foreign death, and for a moment she felt
about the world the way she thought Edward always felt about
it, for thirty honking cars trailed irritably behind her, and, glancing
in the rearview mirror, all she noticed about them was how
brightly they sparkled in the mountain sunlight.

What People are saying about this

Rosellen Brown
"Deeply authentically witty...Cathleen Schine says a thousand things I'd like to have said -- only far, far better than most of us could."
Frederick Busch
"Our cousinly reply to A.S. Byatt. And the sex is better."
Meg Wolitzer
"Sly, hilarious and filled with wonderful observations...With her takes on love, sex, literary fashions, Cathleen Schine is America's answer to David Lodge."

Meet the Author

CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of many novels, most recently The Three Weissmanns of Westport, as well as the internationally best-selling The Love Letter and Alice in Bed, To the Bird House, She Is Me, and The New Yorkers.

Brief Biography

New York, New York, and Venice, California
Date of Birth:
Place of Birth:
Bridgeport, Connecticut
B.A., Barnard College, 1976

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