A reviewer for People magazine once dubbed Cathleen Schine “a modern-day Jewish Jane Austen,” a characterization that has stuck thanks to other reviewers often citing it over the years.
Does she take issue or umbrage with it? No way.
“I don’t see how anyone could complain about that,” says the author of 10 novels, including the recently published “They May Not Mean To, But They Do.” “I don’t mind being in the same cubbyhole [as Austen].”
And just as Schine doesn’t quibble about being pegged, like Austen, as a sly, wry chronicler of stories in which familial mishaps intersect with social mores, she also has no problem with being tagged as Jewish.
Like authors who have written about old-money WASP society, such as Henry James, Edith Wharton and, more recently, Louis Auchincloss, Schine writes primarily of educated, upper-middle-class, secular liberal Jews of New York and California.
It’s familiar terrain to her. After growing up in Westport, Connecticut, and living for much of her life in New York, she now resides in Los Angeles with her spouse, filmmaker and producer Janet Meyers. Schine will be in the Bay Area next week promoting her new book.
“[While] everyone is Episcopalian to me until proven otherwise,” she says, referring to characters in books by non-Jewish authors, “for me, it’s the other way around … It doesn’t occur to me to not make the characters Jewish.”
But there’s Jewish, and then there’s Jewish.
While most of Schine’s characters over the years have been Jewish — from Alice Brody in her debut novel “Alice in Bed” (1983) to the Weissmann family in her overtly Austen-esque “The Three Weissmanns of Westport” (2010) — their religious and cultural identities have not played a central role.
“They May Not Mean To” — described by the Miami Herald as “warm, lively and generous” and “one of the must-reads of the summer” — is her most Jewish book to date.
And it’s not just because the central figures in the novel, husband and wife octogenarians Aaron and Joy Bergman, and their kids and grandkids, are strongly identified Jews. It’s that their sensibilities, experiences and entire being in the world are filtered through Jewish lenses.
Early in the book, Schine describes the Bergmans’ first neighborhood on the Upper West Side as an American version of a shtetl: “Their neighbors were immigrants from Eastern Europe, émigrés from Brooklyn, teachers and violinists and opera singers … There were mom-and-pop dress shops and dairy restaurants and bakeries.”
Joy Bergman works part-time as a conservation consultant at a small, Lower East Side museum dedicated to Jewish artifacts, a job she has cherished for decades.
The eldest Bergman granddaughter, Ruby, is fascinated by old photographs of Aaron’s and Joy’s immigrant parents and grandparents. At one point, she toys with traditional Judaism and asks her parents, Daniel and Coco, to observe the laws of kashrut … much to their secular Jewish dismay.
Why, after years of depicting comfortably assimilated Jews, is Schine throwing a spotlight on Jews whose souls are infused with Yiddishkeit?
The answer, she suggests, is that the provenance of this book is “a very intimate place,” a place in which she and many of her fellow 50- and 60-somethings have become the primary caregivers to their elderly Jewish parents — members of the final generation to hold memories of parents or grandparents from the Old Country. (Schine says that all of her great-grandparents came from the vicinity of “Minsk or Pinsk.”)
Just as the Bergman clan rallies around patriarch Aaron as his mind and vital organs shut down, Schine found herself a few years back in a similar position with her dying father and stepfather. She hadn’t considered writing a book about the fallout of caregiving — the fatigue, guilt, worry and physical toll — but “it was all that my friends could talk about,” she says.
As is often the case with writers, she says it wasn’t that she chose the subject, but that the subject found her.
Issues of mortality are not new for Schine. “Alice in Bed” is about a smart and charming bedridden young woman, a character based on Schine, who suffered years ago from aseptic necrosis, a result of a toxic reaction to a drug she was taking to treat Crohn’s disease. Her last book, “Fin & Lady,” is a coming-of-age tale of an orphan living in Greenwich Village with his boho, flamboyant older half-sister during the 1960s.
What’s not new, either, is Schine’s deft swerving between the humorous and the tragic. In her mind, they are neighbors on the emotional continuum of life.
In “They May Not Mean To, But They Do,” the grief-stricken Bergmans waver between the staid nonsectarian funeral home on Madison Avenue and the nonprofit Jewish funeral home on the Upper West Side to comic effect. “I would not bury a fly at your funeral home,” Joy tells the Madison Avenue funeral director, opting for the other site, where the funeral director promises her a coat rack “in case it rains.”
Schine, who borrowed the title for her book from the well-known line from a Philip Larkin poem (“They f–k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”) says that many of her wittiest lines come from her own mother, an 87-year-old who recently retired as a New York professor. Though the two live 3,000 miles apart, as do daughter Molly and mother Joy in “They May Not Mean To,” they are particularly close.
“My mother is an astute and insightful reader,” Schine says. More than that, “she taught me how to read and gave me a love of books.”
“They May Not Mean To, But They Do” by Cathleen Schine (290 pages, Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Cathleen Schine will appear at 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 28 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 29 at Mrs. Dalloway’s, 2904 College Ave., Berkeley. www.cathleenschine.com