My name is Constance Schulyer Klein. The story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said good-bye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now, I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh, I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary.
On the surface, all looks to be fine. Sidney is a distinguished academic “who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart”, an effective and popular lecturer, although he is having some difficulty translating that in-person success into his book The Conservative Heart (“One day it was brilliant, the next it stank.”).
And at first glance, Constance herself has an attractive career as an editor at a New York publishing firm, although her slim confidence even there is threatened when she tells her editor-in-chief that she is in love. Her boss asks Constance if she finds her work fulfilling and when the response is yes, the editor-in-chief says “You hold on to it then…. I assumed she meant that I couldn’t love Sidney Klein and my job at the same time but I told her I could.”
The early days of marriage are happy but troublesome signs (at least in Constance’s ever-questioning mind) start to show early. Sidney treats her well enough in day-to-day matters and the sex is fine, but “he knew so much more than me and after a while this grew irksome”. As well, Sidney carries his academic behavioral style over into his personal relationships — his dialectic challenging constantly undermines Constance’s already limited self-confidence.
I have only read one other McGrath novel (Trauma) but from that limited exposure would say that as an author he has only a remote interest in developing the apparently “normal” aspect of his character’s lives. Rather, his focus is on the insecurity and incompleteness that are ever-present undercurrents in their self-evaluation and how little it takes to set those currents roiling. We can tell from the opening words quoted above that Constance has a lot of negative experiences that are still rippling from her past — as the novel proceeds, those will become even more real and new ones based in the present will be added.
Those present-day ones start to acquire substance when Constance’s younger sister, Iris, moves to New York City from upstate, ostensibly to start medical school. Their mother had died when Constance was in her teens and, before she moved to the city, she became a kind-of substitute mother. But as Iris matured, their relationship cooled:
She’d made several visits to New York while she was in college and I was never unhappy to put her on a train back upstate. She was more trouble than she’d ever been in high school. In the brief periods I’d spent with her she exhausted me.
Iris moves into an apartment “over a noodle shop in Chinatown”, finds a job at an hotel and takes up serious partying, drinking and sleeping around. When Constance visits Iris at the hotel, Iris immediately takes her to the bar which features a lounge-lizard pianist, Eddie Castrol. “Doesn’t he remind you of Daddy?” Iris whispers — hardly a positive assessment, given what we already know of Constance’s relationship with her father. Things quickly spiral downhill for Constance when it becomes apparent that Iris and Eddie are having an affair: “I imagined him feasting on her plump soft heavy body like some kind of animal.”
Troubles with Daddy from the past that still linger. Marriage as a desperate attempt to start a new, positive life. The arrival of a sister who not only revives all those old troubles but brings with her life-style a whole new set. And all that is merely McGrath setting the table for even darker developments.
It would be a needless spoiler to go into details, but it is only fair to observe that things do get much, much worse on all three fronts: Daddy, Sidney and Iris. We do find out what was behind the difficult relationships with both parent and sibling. And while Sidney is the most sympathetic (and least disturbed) of the central characters, his incompleteness comes from his self-preoccupation — even when he wants to be of help, he does not have much to offer.
While an assortment of disturbing developments and outright tragedies do occur, as I said earlier McGrath’s interest is in what sort of response these provoke under the surface, most particularly Constance’s surface. We know from the start that she is incomplete, with very limited coping skills, so it gives nothing away to say that things don’t just get worse, they get exponentially worse.
For this reader, that made Constance a very frustrating novel. I appreciated McGrath’s talent throughout, but the more fully he painted his picture, the more isolated I felt. Rather than finding Constance’s insecurity (and her inadequate responses to it) part of a character who deserved at least some sympathy, I found her becoming ever more annoying — perhaps that was the author’s intention but all it did for me was produce sour distaste. Life did deal her a bad hand but with every “choice” she makes, she succeeds in making it worse.
As I read the book, I did find myself reminded of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs which also features a central character who experiences disappointment after disappointment. The crucial difference is that while Messud’s character responds with anger towards those around her, McGrath’s Constance’s resentment produces mainly internalized responses.
From reviews that I have read, both novels have provoked a widely-varied response. I suspect it is a case that readers who have a deeper personal feeling than I do of what it is like to experience mistreatment firsthand can find more in these novels than I did. For my part, if I ran into any of these people in real life, I’d politely excuse myself and head to the other side of the room — as much as I appreciate the two authors’ talent in developing them, I can’t say I find them any more appealing in a book.