Monday, January 22, 2001

In the Family Way by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

I want to talk to you this morning about a new book by Lynne Sharon Schwartz, entitled, In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy. Schwartz has been a favorite author of mine ever since I read her most important novel, Disturbances in the Field. She also wrote one of the best coming-of-age, leaving-childhood-behind novels I’ve ever read, entitled Leaving Brooklyn, a rich novel about how hard it is to in some sense transcend or escape family, hometown, childhood religion. Of course, she is also well aware that we cannot literally transcend our histories, that we carry them with us forever and that even reaction and attempted overthrow of such influences is, itself, an acting out of our historicity. Still, the attempt to step outside and look at how we are influenced by culture and family is, according to Schwartz, crucial to freeing ourselves. It is understanding how these influences determine us that in some sense frees us.

Finally, before getting to her recent novel, let me remind you of one other of her books, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books, the manifesto of a reader that should strike a chord in any dedicated, lifetime reader; it’s funny and insightful as well as providing a kind of justification for reading as an end in itself. And as a kind of continuation of that book, there is a brand new collection of essays, Face to Face, that will delight any Schwartz fan.

In the Family Way is about a modern kind of extended family living in New York City. Billed on its cover as a comedy of manners, I think, instead, that it is a very serious look at what families might become. Ursula Le Guin, who is also sited on the jacket cover, says that Schwartz has proved Tolstoy wrong in this book, that “All happy families are not alike. Her novel is about a happy family that is totally unlike any other family you have read about.” I think Le Guin is just right; Schwartz wants to tell us in this book what families here and now could be like. She understands that divorce is much more common now than in the past, and that there are more and more children who are in what get called broken families. What Schwartz wants to tell us about is a way of not breaking families in spite of the fact of separation and divorce.

In this often funny but also very serious novel, we have a family that consists of many members who are connected in many ways. The grandmother, who remembers very well her youth in The Young Socialist League where she met and married her first love Mickey, actually owns the apartment building in which they all live, but it is her daughter Bea who really runs things. Bea’s first husband, Roy, also lives in the building, but not with Bea, nor with his second wife Serena. Instead, Roy lives with his third wife, Lisa, who is pregnant with his fifth child, and yes, they, too, live in the building. Bea lives with her two children, Sara (who has become Shimmer), and Danny. Her other two children, who are not hers biologically, but, rather, the biological offspring of her husband, Ray, and a Viet Namese woman, Lien, now deceased, have been raised by her for most of their lives, but are now grown and gone. Bea’s lover, Dimitri, is also the apartment’s super. Oh, and I forgot to mention, Serena still lives in the building, but now she lives with May, Bea’s artist sister, and Serena, too, is pregnant, that is, in the family way. But you will have to read the book to see just how this has come about.

So, is this a chaotic household, filled with seething jealousies and dysfunctional units? Well, there are jealousies, and there are problems, but under the benign guidance and wisdom of Bea, I would call this a very well adjusted and, yes, happy family. One of the things I find oddest about divorce is not the separation itself, which is so often so very good for the two people who have been married (and, while married, found ways to daily diminish each other in the name of love and duty); no, it is not the separation that surprises me, but the bitterness and hatred left behind. As if the divorce somehow proves that the two never loved each other, never had anything in common, that it all had to be some horrible mistake and lie. No doubt, there are divorces that are escapes from a kind of daily hell, but it is also so often the case that the people involved seem to think they must learn to hate the other, turn from each other totally, in order to justify the separation. And if there are children involved who somehow still love both parents, well ... so much the worse for them, since they must deal daily with the venom and hatred that stands between the two people they most love.

When Roy announces to Bea that he has fallen in love with a client (Roy is a therapist), wanting Bea somehow to forgive him professionally as well as personally, she does just that. Never mind that she has a bit of a thing going with Dimitri already, making Roy’s ‘abandonment’ somewhat easier. What she sees clearly is that Roy really loves his children, and that they really love and need him. That they will share custody is never in question, and if living in the same neighborhood would be a good thing for the children, same schools, same friends, etc., well then why not live in the same building?
Right now we need to plan how to manage this. We’re not going to be angry, or fight over money, or the kids, or all the things people do. We’re going to behave like a family, as we always have. I’ll talk to this woman—what’s her name anyway?


“This Serena, and we’ll work it out. We’ll explain to her that this isn’t a connection we can break off just like that. It wasn’t only sex between us. We have a life together. She’ll understand, if she’s a reasonable person. She didn’t want to end her own marriage, did she? You had to persuade her. It’ll be better for her too, not having to deal with a furious ex-wife. Believe me, this is the way to go. Look, Roy, it’s starting to get light. I really must get some sleep.” She slid down under the quilt.

“I can’t believe you’re rolling over and going to sleep after this. This is your marriage breaking up.”

“Yes.” she murmured, but life goes on. Or so they say.
Of course, you can see that this is quite a set-up for humor, and I quite understand why reviewers were caught up with the comedy side of the book, but I am convinced that this novel is not primarily a comedy, nor is it a critique of modern relationships and a call to return to traditional values. Instead, I think Schwartz is very seriously trying to tell us about how we might live in a changing world, how we might be able to salvage the very best parts of committed relationships without also buying into what is worst about them. Same sex relationships, committed relationships without marriage, mutual and friendly dissolving of what have been good relationships, perpetuating strong relationships even when the living together ends—all of these things are possible, and all good ways of preserving family in the very best sense of family. Separating without hating, without giving the lie to the past, without forcing children into impossible choices of whom to love and whom to reject.

Schwartz, herself, has lived a long life of balancing the needs and demands of family life with the need for space and privacy and a place to work. And it is obvious from all of her work that she does not regret it. Yes, one needs a room of one’s own, but she has found fulfillment in her children, her mate. She loves to observe them as well as to immerse herself in their lives. Unlike writers like May Sarton who have found that they must choose between love/family and creativity, Schwartz has found room for both, and is convinced that each nourishes the other.

I think this is a rich and serious book. There are lots of characters, and you may need to read into it a hundred pages or so before you really find yourself, but give it a chance. Try to read it in a sustained way, and I think you will find, as I did, that Schwartz has lots to tell us about how we can live and love here and now

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