In this "witty novel about family, friendship, and survival of the fittest,"* Cathleen Schine, one of our most astute social observers, examines the origin of species alongside the origins of who we come to be. In some mysterious family feud or unintended slight, Jane Barlow Schwartz lost a friend, her cousin and soul mate Martha. But years later, surrounded by the exotic wildlife of the Galapagos, Jane and Martha meet again. There, amid the antics of blue-footed boobies and red-lipped batfish, Jane sets off on a quest through her family history to pinpoint the moment when Martha was no longer the Martha she knew. In the process, she ponders instinct, natural selection, and the oddities of evolution that transform us. As Barbara Kingsolver proclaimed in the "New York Times Book Review, ""We should rejoice in a rare novel like "The Evolution of Jane . . . "a rollicking family saga tinged with hints of sexual intrigue . . . Three cheers."
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
CATHLEEN SCHINE is the author of many novels, including The Three Weissmanns of Westport, andthe internationally best-selling The Love Letter and Alice in Bed, To the Bird House, She Is Me, and The New Yorkers.
Hometown:New York, New York, and Venice, California
Date of Birth:1953
Place of Birth:Bridgeport, Connecticut
Education:B.A., Barnard College, 1976
Read an Excerpt
Have you ever lost a friend? It is the saddest and most baffling experience. No one sympathizes, unless the friend died, which in my case she did not. I lost my best friend many years ago. She had been my best friend for almost a decade, for more than half of childhood, and then she evaporated, as though she had never really existed at all. Did anyone call me, try to console me, try to find a new friend for me? Yet when my husband left me after six months, I was bathed in sympathy and inappropriate blind dates. For that brief and absurd episode, I received the most tender consideration from all around me, most particularly from my family. Here is the story of my ex-husband: Michael and I were young and stupid; he, being young and stupid, left me for someone equally young and stupid; I, being stupid, cried for three months, and then, being young, woke up in the middle of the night, ate a bowl of cold leftover spaghetti, thought “This is pleasant,” and cried no more.
But my mother had become convinced that I needed to “go abroad” in order to heal, and I did not disabuse her of this quaint notion. Although I was happier without Michael, I did feel regret at no longer being a wife, if only in an abstract sort of way. Going abroad had such a nice amour-propre-restoring ring to it.
“Off you go!” my mother used to say when she pushed me out the door to play, to stop me from moping around the house.
“Off you go!” she said after my divorce. “Off to the Galapagos!”
And so, like many wounded, world-weary souls before me, like Charles Darwin himself, I set sail for the Galapagos Islands. Is a visit to the Galapagos a very odd vacation? It seemed ideal to me the instant my mother suggested the trip. These islands were Darwin’s territory, and my mother recalled my childhood infatuation with the bearded nineteenth-century naturalist. She remembered that I wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands when I was a little girl.
In my biography period, I read an illustrated account of the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, which marked the beginning of my fascination with Charles Darwin. What I remember most vividly from that book was, first, that Darwin was seasick for the entire five years of his voyage on the Beagle, and, second, that he had to be very tidy on shipboard. There were pictures of the cabinets used to store specimens, pictures of rows of little bottles and jars and wooden boxes, each labeled in an old-fashioned hand. Life on board ship seemed miniature, like a playhouse full of neatly organized treasures. I’m sure there were pictures in the book of other things as well—birds and volcanoes and ferns—but what I remember most were the boxes and drawers and their orderly tags.
I have had many heroes over the years. But Darwin was one of the earliest. And unlike some of those other early heroes—the Bionic Woman or Pinky Tuscadero, for example—Darwin has aged well. Perhaps because he was so imperfect, because he suffered, because he lived so many lives—a life of physical courage and adventure, a courageous and adventurous life of the mind, a quiet and settled family life. Perhaps because he was such a good gardener. I considered becoming a naturalist, like Darwin. The problem was that once outdoors, I became bored almost immediately. For a while, I persevered, usually by sitting inside thinking I should be a naturalist, sometimes by actually going outside and forcing myself to look at things.
During this time, like all my friends, I also read The Diary of Anne Frank and The Story of My Life by Helen Keller. But in addition to blindfolding myself and wandering around the living room to see what it was like to be blind the way we all did, and crouching in the attic with a bologna sandwich, hiding from Nazis, I used to look for fossils. I tired of being blind within a few minutes, and I tired of fossils almost as quickly, particularly because I never found any. I did, however, display and label a row of rocks from the driveway. I didn’t know what they were and was too lazy to find out, so I just labeled them by color. But I still felt a proprietary bond with Darwin. Whenever I hear his name, to this day, I experience a sudden alertness, as if my own name has been spoken.
When Darwin was a young man, he collected beetles and loved to go shooting. He was supposed to be a doctor like his father, but at the first surgical demonstration in medical school, at the first sight of blood, he fainted. In his subsequent studies for the clergy, he spent most of his time carousing and turning over damp logs looking for insects. It was appealing to me to think that I was making the journey to Darwin’s islands much as Darwin had—because the opportunity presented itself and life at home was too confusing. It’s true that his parents did not send him to the Galapagos as mine did. In fact, his father was against the idea. But Darwin convinced his family. And so he sailed far, far away on a ninety-foot boat, just like me.
My mother gave me the restorative trip to the Galapagos as a twenty-fifth birthday present. This generous and extravagant gift was from both my parents, actually, but I knew it was my mother’s idea. It had the scent of whim, and that’s my mother’s scent.
“You need to go far away,” my mother said.
“Why not the Falkland Islands?” my father said. “That’s even farther. And they have sheep.”
“Jane is not interested in sheep, are you, Jane?”
“No, not really.”
“You see? The Galapagos are perfect. There is not a single sheep.”
My mother, a Spanish teacher, found out about this trip through a teachers’ organization she belonged to. My father said perhaps she ought to send me to someplace normal, like Paris, for my birthday.
“No,” I said. “The Galapagos will be far more consoling.”
My father laughed. “I’ve always found you amusing, Jane,” he said, “and so odd.”
I hadn’t thought much about Darwin or the Galapagos in years, but now, suddenly, as an adult, I wanted to go to those volcanic islands more than I ever had. I was no longer a wife. I had been stripped of my category. So where better to go than to the place where Darwin discovered so many new categories, the place where he discovered the very secret of categories? “I’m not a Coco Island finch anymore,” said the little brown bird on the little brown island, “so what am I?” “You’re a Darwin’s finch,” said Darwin. “And you, over there, you’re a long-billed finch, and you’re a vampire finch”—until all thirteen species of Galapagos finches were detected and named.
What exactly is a species? The definition of a species may seem a simple matter to you, but it puzzled and intrigued me whenever I thought about it, which I must admit was not that often until I prepared to visit Darwin’s islands. But once you begin thinking about it, where do you end? I mean, what is it? How do you know? How do you decide? The idea that we all evolved from the same drop of ectoplasmic ooze I have always found to be perfectly reasonable. Nor is it biological diversity itself that alarms me. But look at one mockingbird and look at another. They appear similar, yet they are different species. Look at a Pekingese and a greyhound. They appear different, yet they are the same species.
In my defense, let me point out that the concept of species has changed drastically over the centuries. People have divided up flora and fauna into formal categories since Aristotle—but they keep changing the rules. These days, of course, there are recognized scientific criteria for determining an organism’s species. But when I pored over my guidebook looking at pictures of birds and iguanas, I couldn’t help wondering who decided what those scientific criteria were and, more important, how they decided. The
Galapagos, the islands that had inspired Darwin to find the answers to all my questions, beckoned. I had seen those documentaries of courting blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises chewing cactus. The Galapagos were the frontier of species, and Darwin their pioneer. I was going where Darwin had gone, to see what Darwin had seen.
“You’re searching for your roots,” my father said, “on a dormant volcano?”
“They’re not all dormant.”
“Sturdy shoes!” my mother said. “And a hat!”
I had never gone anywhere with a group before, and I tried to tell myself that my Galapagos pilgrimage with the Natural History Now Society, arranged by my mother, would not be a week on a small boat with an assemblage of strangers, but an enriching apprenticeship. I knew there had to be a reasonable answer to the species question, and I guess I hoped that, traveling with a bunch of nature enthusiasts, I would find it.
The trip was in July, and I spent much of the month of June brooding on the nature of species and, in a less abstract but equally challenging vein, shopping. I had to find just the right backpack. I needed the best special quick-drying nylon shorts. There were microfiber shirts and bras and underpants to be acquired, pants that unzipped into shorts and padded moisture-wicking socks, snorkeling booties, gloves and a hood, a wet suit (long or short? how many milligrams thick?), snorkeling skin to wear beneath the wet suit, a Gore-Tex rain jacket, Tevas, summerweight hiking shoes, water bottles, hats, sunglasses, a strap to keep the sunglasses from falling overboard, and of course insect repellent, Dramamine, ginger pills, aloe lotion, and enormous bottles of mighty, waterproof sunscreen. The shopping was satisfying, even more satisfying than shopping normally is, for each purchase was so specialized, made for a reason. A teleological wardrobe. I sometimes think of shopping as a metaphor for life; that is, one tries so hard, picking and choosing, getting as much as one possibly can within one’s budget, and then most of it goes in the closet, out of style or too tight in the waist. Then I remind myself that it’s the shopping itself that really matters, not the purchases.
“Zen shopping,” I once explained to my brother Andrew.
“You have far too much stray information,” he said.
On July 12, I flew from Kennedy Airport to Guayaquil, a busy, unattractive city on the coast of Ecuador, where I had to change to a smaller plane that could land at Baltra, one of the two Galapagos
Islands that has an airport. There, on Baltra, the Thomas H. Huxley, chartered by the Natural History Now Society, would be waiting.
On the plane to Guayaquil, I continued to read the guidebook my father had given me, a wonderful natural history of the islands written by a naturalist named Michael H. Jackson. According to Michael H., there are thirteen large Galapagos islands and six small ones, and they “straddle,” as he so vividly puts it, the equator at the ninetieth meridian west, six hundred miles west of mainland Ecuador. The Galapagos Islands were first discovered in 1535, first appeared on a map in 1570, and hosted their first
resident in 1807—a shipwrecked Irishman named Patrick Watkins. Watkins was stranded for years before he stole the longboat of a passing whaler, enslaved five of its sailors, and rowed away with them. Herman Melville, too, went there on a whaling ship. Melville said that the “chief sound of life here is a hiss.” I began to wonder if this vacation was such a good idea after all. Yes, I had seen the PBS documentaries on the soaring albatross, the tortoises, and the boobies with their bright feet. But everyone the guidebook quoted, even Darwin, remarked on how ghastly and glum the islands looked, with burnt fields of ash, jagged black lava, the blinding glare of birdlime.
I was very taken by the book, by the harsh drama of the islands it described, and by the author’s name as well. How lucky he was to have a middle name, I thought, under the circumstances. I, too, have a middle name. My middle name is Barlow. Barlow is my mother’s family name. It is also the name of the Connecticut town I grew up in, which, as I read about those desert islands I was headed toward, seemed suddenly such an alluring place, so green and inviting.
At the Guayaquil airport, which was small but as lively as a marketplace, I waited to board a midget propeller plane and thought, Why didn’t I just go to Barlow?
I was told to line up with the other passengers on the tarmac. With our bags on the ground in front of us, we stood facing uniformed men holding automatic weapons, like prisoners facing the firing squad.
“Terrorists?” asked a woman near me.
“Drugs,” said someone else. “Or a coup.”
I entertained the idea of a pogrom. I speculated on the possibility of being killed by a death squad before seeing even one species of tortoise. Then a huge police dog appeared, held tight on a thick leash. The military men remained grim as the big dog wagged his tail gaily and pranced along the line of passengers, poking his wet nose at our bags. I wondered if he was searching for a new species.
When the dog was done with us, we finally boarded the plane. An American family of five—grandmother, I assumed, various grown children, and one girl about ten years old, the granddaughter— stood in the aisle, blocking my way, discussing their seating arrangements.
“You can’t give Grandpa the window seat,” the little girl said with considerable disgust. “He’s dead.”
“Don’t say that,” her mother said. “You’ll hurt Grandma’s feelings.”
A guy about my age, the girl’s uncle, I supposed, gave me a helpless, apologetic smile. A very engaging apologetic smile. I thought he must surely be with the Natural History Now group, for he was dressed in natural history clothes of khaki nylon and Velcro. But then, so was everyone else. “My guidebook says the view from the left is better,” he said. He pointed to an empty seat and I took it. In half an hour I was looking down from the window at a small, dun-colored, flat plateau of volcanic dust surrounded by a flat gray sea.
Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos in the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. This is his first impression of the islands: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance. A broken field of black basaltic lava is every where covered by a stunted brushwood, which shows little signs of life. The dry and parched surface, having been heated by the noonday sun, gave the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove: we fancied even the bushes smelt unpleasantly.”
I read this passage from The Journal of the H.M.S. Beagle on that short flight, and when we climbed down the plane’s aluminum stairway onto the runway, I expected to be met by just such a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove.
I stood at the bottom of the stairway. It wasn’t hot at all. It was chilly. I reminded myself that I was there in July, and July was winter in the Southern Hemisphere. Darwin had visited the Galapagos in September, which would have been what? Spring.
Maybe this trip really was a mistake. The sun hung directly overhead. Noon on the equator. I stood beneath the equatorial sun three thousand miles from home, among islands teeming with blue-footed, yellow-scaled, red-throated life, none of it visible, the ground stretching offin cinders. I was traveling with a group of complete strangers. What if they tried to talk to me about the healing powers of crystals? Or Jesus? Or sex addiction? And the islands were ugly—even Darwin said so. And they were
cold. These were the islands the Spanish called the Encantadas, the Enchanted Islands. By enchanted, they meant under a spell, they meant cursed.
It was then that I saw a young woman with a sign for our group.
I knew it was her. I could tell from across the room. I could tell without seeing her face. There are people you recognize by their general presence. Birdwatchers can identify a bird without really
seeing it, by getting just a glimpse, a fleeting movement, the beat of a wing, the flash of a silhouette. The bird flies off, leaving only an impression.
Martha was across the room, obscured by the shade, but I recognized her in just that immediate, intuitive way. I almost expected her to fly off, like a bird, leaving only an impression. Again.
She held a sign that said “Natural History Now.” Every group must have a naturalist guide from the Ecuadorian Parks Department. She was our guide.
She was also the girl who had grown up next door to me, my best friend, the one who didn’t die, the one for whom I received absolutely no sympathy.
Martha Barlow, my cousin and childhood friend, still my cousin, no longer a child, no longer a friend, standing in the little airport of Isla Baltra, Galapagos, Ecuador, waiting for the group from Natural History Now.
She stared at me.
“You look just like someone I used to know,” she said.
“Jane? Is that really you?”
Martha smiled, a pure, involuntary smile that welled up from years and years of friendship. I smiled back. For one moment the simple surprise and fact of recognition hit both of us directly. Then I thought, This is not what I had in mind.
An anonymous vacation with knowledgeable, mildly entertaining, and occasionally enraging strangers was what I’d had in mind. But here was this person who knew me, whom I had once known. Her presence was suddenly not only surprising, but ominous.
“I didn’t know you were here,” I said.
“I’ve been down here for a year. I work here. Well, I live here, too. It’s so amazing to see you. So weird. Are you actually on this tour? You’re in my group! The past rises up and walks upon the earth!”
The friend is dead! Long live the friend!
Martha gave my hand a squeeze. I must admit I was filled with what I can only call joy. Martha, my best friend, among all the strangers and the ashes. But the joy lasted a mere moment. For she was not my best friend, I reminded myself. She had thrown me over, dumped, ditched, cut, cold-shouldered, discarded, shelved, jettisoned, and retired me. I considered asking her right then and there why she’d been so awful so many years ago, so awful that I was reduced to mentally sputtering mixed metaphors. Or not precisely awful, as she had never done anything overtly unkind. She had just stopped being my friend. Stopped, like a clock.
But of course I didn’t say, “Hey, you over there, the disloyal, fickle one holding the sign, what the fuck happened anyway?” as I wanted to. For one thing, I didn’t have a chance. Martha, the group leader, the guide, was quickly surrounded by her charges. There was a young, heavily equipped couple who introduced themselves as Craig and Cindy Gerrard. Then two women—surely they were at least seventy-five years old—greeted her. One was tall and imposing with a brisk and Tyrolean manner, though she spoke in a thick Queens accent. The other woman sported an alarming amount of aged but still coquettish cleavage. I wondered if Martha worried that these elderly ladies would not be up to the trip. I decided that they both, each in her own way, exhibited quite sufficient vigor. Another aged traveler approached Martha, also a septuagenarian, well groomed, well preserved, small and dapper. He kissed her hand and said, “And a little child shall lead them!”
Martha greeted the rest—the family I’d seen on the plane, a middle-aged couple, and a woman wearing a United Nations of ethnic garments and carrying an umbrella—and turned back to me now and then to say, “What a coincidence! I can’t believe it!” I had no idea how Martha had come to be a ranger for the Ecuadorian Parks Department. The last I heard was that she was premed in college.
I said, “I thought you were going to medical school.”
“I’m a botanist, actually.”
“So I guess you never went to medical school.”
“Me? No. Did you?”
“Me? No. You were supposed to go.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“Well, I certainly didn’t,” I said.
We smiled at each other, both recognizing the comforting, irritable rhythm of a friendship set in its ways. But this intimacy, too, lasted only a moment.
Martha said, “Well!” and resumed her role as guide.
I had successively mourned, demonized, and forgotten Martha, off and on, for quite a few years. Standing in that airport, awkward and uncertain and impatient, I found it hard to believe that now, after so long, Martha could casually greet me, turn easily to the others, nonchalantly turn back again. I don’t know what I thought would have been more appropriate. A massive stroke, perhaps.
“We’re like your little ducklings,” I said. The sound of my voice depressed me. It was forced, lighthearted, one of those voices that have about them a faint echo of desperation.
“Quack,” said the oddly dressed woman, and she shook my hand warmly, another member of the flock.
This is where I ought to tell you why Martha and I stopped being friends. The problem is, I don’t know. There just came a time when she stopped calling, stopped returning my calls, stopped dead. I never knew what it was I’d done. I just knew that I’d lost my best friend. Or perhaps misplaced her, for here she was again, right in front of me.
We climbed into a launch. The wind blew in our faces. The sea was everywhere. It filled every sense. I tried to think of something to say. Ahead, I could see the Huxley, a ninety-foot yacht built especially for ferrying tourists around the Galapagos.
“Our boat is the same size as the Beagle,” I said. Martha nodded.
“The Beagle carried seventy-four passengers for five years. Can you imagine all those people, all those years on such a small boat?”
“Well,” Martha said. “Actually, I forgot to tell you. The trip has been extended! The other sixty people are already on board!”
Our latitude was zero degrees. Martha and I sat in a launch motoring toward a ninety-foot boat at zero degrees. Was that like starting out from zero? Perhaps we could begin all over again, squabbling happily, pretending the last few years had never occurred, ignoring the years of friendship before that. We could meet as if for the first time and proceed from there, from zero degrees latitude. But I saw immediately that Martha was far too familiar to meet for the first time.
The sun was so bright it bleached the sky a pale, pale blue. I put on my sunglasses and watched Martha from behind them. She loved the group already, that was clear. I was sure that she liked all her groups, indulging them, her ducklings waddling all in a row behind her. Martha was not maternal, don’t get me wrong. When she played with dolls as a little girl, they were never her babies—they were her devoted followers. I was sure that the tourists in every one of her groups were as devoted as her dolls. I always had been, and old habits die hard: Martha pushed her sunglasses up on her head, and I felt an awkward urge to do the same.
We climbed a ladder from the panga, as Martha called the launch, to our boat. We were handed up by members of the crew. All of them then assembled in the main cabin, a lounge with a bar. There were ten crew members wearing dress-white uniforms, and as they shook hands and greeted us in smiling, animated Spanish, I thought that, unfriendly as the islands might be, the Huxley, at least, was going to be an amiable place. The cook, fat and bow-legged, wore a stiff, sparkling white chef jacket and a tall sparkling white chef hat that towered officially and absurdly above his white shorts and sneakers.
We had been ferried to the boat in two pangas, and I had gone with the courtly old gentleman and the two older women, the one tall and mighty, the other soft, ripe, and risqué, whose names I instantly forgot, as well as the young couple, who both had the softest traces of Canadian accents, and the person of late middle age in deeply eccentric clothing who had quacked. In the other panga, there was the middle-aged couple and the guy who had advised me about seating in the plane along with his family. Although I was rather skeptical about men just at that point, I did note that he seemed to be single and was good-looking, though short. And I idly speculated what it would be like to have him as
my roommate on the trip. But I knew the eco-bag-lady was somehow meant for my cabin. There was an unaccountable, hideous inevitability to it.
I also thought of the possibility of sharing a cabin with Martha, of course: perhaps forcing the issue of whether we were or were not still friends by cramped, elbow-jostling intimacy, perhaps to punish her for her disloyalty with constant cold companionship, or perhaps just to have an extended sleepover as in the halcyon days of youth. I wasn’t too clear on my motives. But I did realize that Martha probably got to have her own room, like the teacher on a class trip to Washington, D.C. For my hubris in hoping to share a cabin with her, I would be rewarded with the weirdo in the kimono and Ashanti headdress.
I listened almost impassively as Pablo, a very young Ecuadorian with curly black hair and the only crew member who spoke English, gave us our room assignments, and my roommate fears were confirmed.
She waved at me.
I waved back.
Around us rose a confused competitive murmur. Our room was one of only two on an upper deck. Other passengers looked suspiciously at me and the roommate. A silent question rippled through the group: Would our room be better than theirs? Or worse?
It was better. It had windows and a door that opened out onto the deck. The cabins below were prettier, bigger berths, with walls of varnished wood. But they smelled of fuel, and their little portholes were useless. You couldn’t open them for air because they were nailed shut, and they were far too cloudy to let in the sunlight. In my cabin, though my knees bumped my roommate’s if we both sat on the bunks at the same time, the fresh chill of the air blew through, from door to bright, open window. I was grateful for that breeze, for although we had not yet begun to move, the slight swaying of the boat was already making me a little seasick.
“Just like Charles Darwin himself,” said my new roommate, with a reassuring pat on the back.
Our cabin was not much bigger than a train compartment. Pablo ducked his curly head in the open door to tell us we must each take only one shower a day, or two short showers. Martha had the other cabin on the upper deck. I saw her walk by as Pablo added that we should not flush toilet paper down the toilet, but deposit it in the wastebasket, which he would empty frequently. He spoke in a beautiful, lilting English, which I barely listened to, so intent was I on Martha, incongruous, unexpected, out of place, a fossil, my seashell in the Andes.
My roommate introduced herself as “Gloria Steinham, no relation.” I guessed she was about my mother’s age, and I suspected that even in that cramped space, her knees would seldom have a chance to bump mine, so infrequently did she sit still long enough to get in the way. She told me she was a science teacher, which perhaps I should have guessed, as she seemed to be wearing around her neck all the specimens she would need for an entire unit on shells, seedpods, or canine teeth. Then she announced that she was never seasick, and that she did not snore.
“Which is a blessing,” she said.
“My mother’s a teacher, too.”
“She should have come with you!”
I tried to picture my mother on the Huxley.
“Well, if she could be captain, maybe,” I said.
Reading Group Guide
National bestseller and critically acclaimed novelist, Cathleen Schine is a writer more closely akin to Jane Austen or George Eliot than to her contemporaries. Her comedic parodiesnovels of social peril in the modern ageare witty and madcap, cerebral and introspective. She is an author who never discredits her reader's knowledge of literature, offering bits of prose poems, medieval limericks, and whole subplots of eighteenth century tracts as insider's jokes and to enhance the telling of her own story. All the while, Schine entices her audience to read deeper into her protagonists who live their lives acutely attuned to their own literary finds, mirroring the experience we have when we read Cathleen Schine. As Margaret Nathan becomes engrossed in her newfound novel of seduction, "Rameau's Niece," we become engrossed in our own Rameau's Niece. Schine's comedies of manners, set in familiar neighborhoods and peopled with instantly recognizable characters, reflect our own lives with wit and sympathy.
Schine's true trademark, however, is her protagonists. These women are unlike anyone we've ever met. They're smarter than your average young city-dweller, or academic, or shop-owner. They attract screwball situations as easily as Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. Alice Brody's mysterious ailment couldn't have happened to a more hilarious, self-possessed young woman than the namesake of Alice in Bed. No one can rival the flirty yet persnickety mannerisms of single-mom and bookseller Helen MacFarquhar in The Love Letter. Leave it to Jane Barlow Schwartz of The Evolution of Jane to seek refuge from one failed relationship, only to be unwittingly picked up at the airport by another.
Beyond their slapstick romps in New York City apartments, or through their neighbors' yards in sleepy seaside towns, Schine's leading ladies ask provocative questions and grapple with modern-day issues. Helen MacFarquhar asks, "How does one fall in love?," leaving us curious and wistful at the same time. Jane Barlow takes on perhaps a more complicated relationshipfriendshipdoubting its very usefulness to humanity. From her earliest novel to her latest, Schine takes on women's topics and challenges the roles we choose, all the while ribbing revered literary sources with a wry, sardonic point of view. Cathleen Schine, and her unforgettable protagonists, are the funniest, most honest friends we could choose to spend an evening withthe reason Schine has earned the reputation of "a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen" (People) and one of the sharpest wits writing today.
ABOUT THE BOOKS
The Evolution of Jane
The Love Letter
To the Birdhouse Alice in Bed
The Evolution of Jane
Blending the romance of travel with memories of childhood, the national-bestseller The Evolution of Jane draws on unusual material from the literary realmevolutionary historywhile retaining the trademark slapstick and biting wit of a Cathleen Schine novel. In its setting, the novel marks a departure from Schine's traditionally urban environments, taking the characters to the remote Galapagos Islands six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador. On that island made famous by Darwin's observations of curious species, Schine chooses to observe her favorite curious species, the human one, and one of its most puzzling habitsfriendship.
Jane Barlow Schwartz is a twenty-five-year-old recent divorcée who is treated by her parents to a dream vacation in the Galapagos Islands. Meant to be a diversion from her failed marriage, Jane arrives in the islands only to find that the tour guide assigned to her eco-adventure group is the best friend she lost ten years ago, Martha. A distant cousin and next-door neighbor in the summer community where they grew up, Martha was Jane's best friend. A bit more savvy and brazen (she wintered in New York City), Martha introduced Jane to bikinis, matching tops-and-bottoms, and the joy of having a best friend. However, with no warning at all, Martha dropped the friendship. One day, it was over. Like a discarded lover, Jane was left to wonder what went wrong.
Jane sifts through the most telling memories from her summers spent with Martha, searching for clues to explain what happened. Was it something she said? Did she write something offensive? Was there a family secret Jane never learned of? The journey through the Galapagos Islands progresses and Jane's curiosity about the science of friendship becomes an obsession. As Martha blithely leads the random cast of characters through the nesting areas of the red-footed boobies and the murky waters of the sea lions, Jane can only wonder how Martha can so easily let go of such a strong bond as "best friend." Fueled by Darwin's The Origins of Species, Jane begins to treat friendship as an organismone that requires a habitat tailored to its specific needs, one that is as easily destroyed as it is created.
With great ease, Schine takes us from the myopic world of girlfriendswhere matching sailor suits inspire lengthy conversationto the supposedly mature world of adults on vacationflirting, dining, sometimes politely tolerating each other. She asks the big questions and lets Jane, as well as the reader, muddle through the answers. Why does friendship exist if it doesn't perpetuate the species? Are friendships designed to fail, leaving its partners free to move on to other, more fruitful friendships? Most telling of all, Schine opens the novel with a question Jane demands of the reader, "Have you ever lost a friend?" From the very beginning, Schine promises provocative dialogues between Jane and the reader, Darwin and modern-day relationships. Hailed by The New York Times for its "vivid intensity" and noted for its lively synthesis of science and emotion, The Evolution of Jane appeals to both sides of a reader's brainthe deductive reasoner and the heart-felt empathizer of the human species.
The Love Letter
The story of Helen MacFarquhar is Schine's salute to old-fashioned love and its literary calling card, the love letter. Happily divorced, Helen has returned to her hometown to raise her twelve-year-old daughter and open a neighborhood bookstore. Playing the role of therapist, consultant and resident flirt, Helen outfits the town with books, matches customers to authors, sometimes slyly encouraging an unlikely pair in the hope of inspiring a life-long relationship. One day, Helen receives an anonymous love letter in the mail addressed to "Goat" from "Ram." Helen's precise, controlled world is thrown into disarraywho could the letter be from? She carefully observes the town residents for any sign of the romantic caller and her watchful eye falls on Johnny, the college student who is her summer employee. This reckless, vulnerable, twenty-year-old boy challenges Helen's carefully assembled moral universe as the two fall in a deep, amorous love.
In Schine's hands, this old-fashioned love story becomes a love letter in itself to the reader. Like Helen, who after reading an intriguing love letter looks at her world a little differently, so do we after Schine's inventive novel of seduction look around and begin to ask, "Who could it be?" A national bestseller and acclaimed critics' favorite, The Love Letter was dubbed "an incomparable delight" by The Los Angeles Times.
Praised by The New York Times as a "sheer delight," and named a 1993 favorite book of the year by both The New York Times and The Village Voice Literary Supplement, Rameau's Niece is a riotous send-up of New York City academics and other literati. Margaret Nathan, a scholar of eighteenth century empiricism and author of the runaway bestseller The Anatomy of Madame de Montigny, enjoys the luxury of a regular royalty check but is saddled with the life of seclusion she has afforded herself. Hiding behind her congenial and hyper-linguistic British husband, Edward (whose good-nature and fluency in seven languages open every social door), Margaret is seldom required to experience the world first-hand like the subjects of her academic studies, the yearning philosophers and banned pornographic authors of the Enlightenment. Instead, she meanders through her academic likes and dislikes, moving from one project to the next with the ease of an amnesiac since her weak memory erases any useful recall of her previous work.
When Margaret becomes engrossed in a manuscript of seduction she discovers, Rameau's Niece, her life of stolid observation withers away as she begins to act out a yearning quest for "great, galloping desire." Margaret's pursuit takes her on a libidinous romp around New Yorkfrom a chummy college friend, to a handsome dentist, to a visiting Belgian. She searches for her true desire, self-consciously monitoring her newly inspired cravings. Is she a lesbian? Could she be in love with a pot-bellied stereo manufacturer? Eventually, Margaret exhausts the possibilities and remembers what the empiricists were all aboutseeking truth, not necessarily finding it.
Evoking hefty texts in hilarious slapstick situations, Rameau's Niece spotlights Cathleen Schine as a novelist with a varied palette. It's through Margaret's comedy-of-errors that Schine demonstrates the universality of the empiricists' work as well as the hilarity of human nature of any age.
To the Birdhouse
Alice in Bed
Published in 1983, Cathleen Schine's first novel, Alice in Bed, received nationwide acclaim, heralding Schine as a new comic novelist. The novel features Alice Brody, the first of Schine's many protagonists to share some endearing qualitiesa bit awkward, sometimes shy, always with a literary sweet tooth. Alice becomes ill with an unidentified malady in her legs and hips that leaves her bedridden. In excruciating pain, Alice turns an uncompromising, comic eye on an absurd entourage of wellwishersher eccentric grandmother, her dotty and devoted mother, and a parade of unlikely lovers. In Schine's second novel, To the Birdhouse, Alice returns fully recovered and ready to move on to the next step in her lifemarriage. But first she must rid her mother of a most unsuitable beauone Louis Scifoher new boyfriend of impeccably bad taste and overwhelming tenacity. Alice enlists the rest of the Brody clan in her hilariously executed plot, forcing them to take comedic, impromptu measures to help save her mother from this unsavory character. Publishers Weekly called Alice in Bed "a laugh riot," and The Philadelphia Inquirer hailed it as "exhilarating, exceptionally funny, and beguiling." Both of these novels were praised for their rare high comedy and ingenuity, buoying Schine onto the literary scene.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathleen Schine was born in 1953 in Connecticut, where she grew up reading an eclectic mix of literature. At Sarah Lawrence College, she tried to write poetry, but was distracted by a growing interest in medieval literature, which drew her to Barnard College in Manhattan, where she could comb the extensive library stacks of both Barnard and Columbia University. Here, her range of reading narrowed almost exclusively to thirteenth century illuminated manuscripts, all written in Latin. In her sophomore year, Schine was diagnosed with colitis, a painful intestinal disease. Prescribed steroids soon led to a secondary ailmentpainful inflammation and gradual disintegration of her hips. Schine underwent hip surgery at the young age of twenty.
This painful episode played more than just a medical role in Schine's lifeit launched her literary career. Writing about her unlucky circumstance and seemingly endless hospital stay for The Village Voice, Schine was encouraged by her editor to save some of her best material for a book. Her first novel, Alice in Bed, was published in 1983. Chronicling the mysterious, painful hip disease of a quirky, persnikity young woman, Alice Brody, the novel immediately won the hearts of critics. John Updike praised it in The New Yorker as a "sprightly novel" and recognized Schine's "real caricaturist's flair." National praise for the novel's hilarious treatment of such a miserable condition followed, paving the way for her next two novels, To the Birdhouse and the national bestseller, Rameau's Niece. The Love Letter, published in 1995, was also a national bestselling novel, and was followed by an even greater success, The Evolution of Jane, in 1998. Several of her novels have been made into films.
Cathleen Schine lives in Manhattan's upper west side with her two sons, her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, and her husband, David Denby, who is a film critic. She is a contributor to several publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Magazine.
A Conversation with Cathleen Schine
The protagonists in your novels all have profound relationships with literature. How did your relationship with literature begin? Who are your favorite novelists?
I read a lot when I was a child, but I had somewhat rarified tasteAlbert Payson Terhune until the age of twelve and then Colette and Dostoysevsky. And I don't mean they were my favorite writersthey were very nearly the only writers I read. I was at that time trying to decide between being tormented by the demands of the body or being tormented by the demands of the soul. In college, I read wonderful literature, but it was all written in Latin and I really didn't go past the thirteenth century. I had decided on the torment of being a graduate student. It wasn't until I left school that I really discovered literature. And it had nothing to do with torment. I suddenly realized that I could read simply for the joy of reading. It started with Dickens. It may sound odd that a supposedly well-educated and self-proclaimed literary person had never read Dickens, but as he wasn't Colette or Dostoyevsky and wrote after the thirteenth century, and in English, I hadn't. It was a revelation. I love Dickens in a very particular way because of that. And Trollope, who seems to me so subtle psychologically and morally and, too, as a craftsman. And Jane Austen, of course. I am also a devoted fan of Pictures From An Institution by Randall Jarrell. It is the funniest book ever written. I read it the way some people read the Bible. Of younger more contemporary novelists, I love A. J. Verdelle, who wrote The Good Negress, and I've just discovered Lois-Ann Yamanaka. And Penelope Fitzgerald and Muriel Spark and Salman Rushdie who, weirdly, had a big influence on me. Made me see the beauty of excess. Tim Parks is a really good writer. I also read a lot of nonfiction.
Readers of your novels often experience other literature through your characters' bedside reading or literary obsessions. Do you have a larger mission here? To point readers toward cherished books? Is one of your goals as a novelist to capture the pleasure and excitement of reading?
I'm not proselytizing. It's just that in Rameau's Niece, The Love Letter, and The Evolution of Jane, certain writers or books or kinds of books were actually part of the story.
Your novels seem well-suited to movie adaptations. They are fast-paced, witty and smartone thinks of the classic screwball comedies. Do films inspire your literary imagination? Which movies in particular? Do you write the screenplays or would you rather someone else adapt your work?
The only time a movie consciously contributed to a book was with Rameau's Niece, which I did very much model on The Awful Truth. Other than that, I have often thought that I wish my books could capture a certain feeling and view of the world I see in Ang Lee's earlier movies, like The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman, which are both so uncompromising and humane, and funny. But in general I don't experience movies in the same way that I do books. I don't know if I could write a script for one of my books. I'm working on a screenplay now, but with someone with a lot of experience, and it's not based on a book. And I've enjoyed it. But my books follow words around, and scripts follow behavior. I wonder if I could make that transition with one of my own books.
Have you ever lost a friend as Jane did?
Yes. It still bothers me. I still think about it.
The Evolution of Jane alternates between Jane's and Martha's adult lives and childhoods. What are the challenges of distinguishing between the two eras and the perspectives of the characters at various ages?
I didn't try to write in a child's voice. Well, that's not true. I did try and quickly gave it up. I also tried to include some sections in the historical past (Jane's sea-faring ancestors), and gave that up too. All I can say is, it's good for a writer to take chances and try new things, but, to quote former Mets player Mookie Wilson, "You gotta stay within yourself."
Your descriptions of the Galapagos Islands are extremely vivid, providing a real visual map for the reader. Did you visit before writing The Evolution of Jane? If so, how was that experience?
I did go to the Galapagos with a group called The American Littoral Society. I have wanted to go there since I was a child. Like Jane, I wanted to be a naturalist but was too lazy to actually go outside. The trip was wonderful, exhausting, and I found that in addition to the natural marvels of the islands and their historical and scientific resonance, which is very powerful when you're there, there was this other experience that was equally new and powerful, which was being on a boat for ten days with fifteen strangers. It was like being caught in the most bizarre elevator of all. It was great.
What other kind of research did you do?
I read a lot. I went to the New York Public Library and read about Cuba and eighteenth century shipping and I also read Darwin and books about Darwin and biology textbooks so I could understand the books by Darwin and about Darwin. Darwin is a beautiful writerexploding with excitement at what he sees, and yet writing in a very straightforward prose style. And there are so many great popular science writers around like Stephen Jay Gould and Dawkins, etc. I was lucky to be able to read writers who could really write, even while I did research.
One of the most provocative aspects of The Evolution of Jane is the investigation of Charles Darwin's writings. Jane frequently applies Darwinism to her own lifeand the results often depress her. Do you believe Social Darwinism to be a realityeven if a highly unfair one? What role does it play in the context of human relationships? Why did you choose to write about friendship with Darwinism as a backdrop?
Social Darwinsim is like astrology, I think. It's a pseudo scientific system based on a crude and wrongheaded reading of a subtle insight. Jane's musings are based on Darwin's thoughts and the ideas and controversies of evolutionary theorists who followed him, but they are used as metaphors, not as real explanations. I wasn't interested in the nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, which is the heart of Social Darwinism. I wasn't even interested in sexual selection. It wasn't what the book was about. The book was about change, and that's what evolution is about, really.
The Barlows' family history is linked with economic and political issuesthe maritime industry, the relationship between Cuba and the United States, wealth and poverty. How does this factor into Jane's social world?
I liked the idea of her parents coming from very distinct but lost worldsfrom Cuba and Brooklyn. And I wanted to write about change, about the moment when one thing changes into another. I liked the idea of a family tree. Of her family having a history
The Evolution of Jane has a lively cast of "minor characters"Aunt Anna, Gloria Steinham, Jeremy Toll, and Dot Cornwall, among others. What function do such characters serve in the novel and what do they contribute to the book as a whole?
I usually become almost more attached to my minor characters than to my main characters. In this case, Jane was on a boat with a bunch of strangers about whom she had theories, just as she had theories about everything. And as with everything else, her theories about them were wrong. For me, comedy has a lot to do with misunderstanding.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS The Evolution of Jane
The Evolution of Jane
- Discuss the ways in which Jane and Martha are competitive. Do you think competition is necessary in any relationship? How is competition in friendship useful or harmful?
- What significance does Jane's Cuban heritage have in the story? What are the economic and cultural resonances of it in her relationship with Martha?
- Consider the Galapagos Islands. In many ways, they are populated by anomaliesspecies isolated for so long they have adapted to the very specific environment of Galapagos. How does that relate to people, surrounded by homogeneous friends and family?
- The tourists have to hose off every time they get in the waters around the Galapagos to assure they do not pollute the local environment with foreign organisms. Do you think they've altered the environment just by being there? How have they changed the environment? How have the Galapagos changed them?
- What other naturalist writers do you know of besides Charles Darwin? How has Naturalism changed since his time (1809-82)?
- Charles Darwin's evolutionary theory states that animals and plants develop through natural selection. What does that mean? Besides physical changes through the millennium, how have humans developed through natural selection?
- Consider friendship as a living organism. What environment does it thrive in? What slight variation in its habitat could destroy it?
- What do you think social Darwinism is? Do you think it applies to friendship?
- Why do you think Martha wasn't as concerned as Jane about their lost friendshipor was she?
- Darwin kept his theories secret for twenty years. The Barlow family secret was also buried for decades. The Cornwalls had a secret, which they took to the Galapagos. Why all the secrets? What happens to all of these secrets?
- Do you think friendship is inevitable, like procreation? Or is it an unnecessary human invention? Discuss.
- Where do you think (or hope) Jane and Martha's relationship goes from here?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really loved this book. The author creatively weaved the story of Jane figuring out what happened between her and her friend and Darwin's evolution theories he developed from the Galapagos Islands. The way Jane applies Darwin to her life was very amusing. Her shipmates are hilarious. This book really made me want to read other books by this author, even though I have never heard of her before. A must read for the intelligent woman who hasn't quite figured it all out yet!
Somewhat interesting and light read. Liked the Darwin stuff and learning about the Galapagos. Sometimes a little self-indulgent.