Although both books I had been reading together had some humor, both Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk and Cathleen Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do were giving me a headache. With the focus on illness and dying, they made a good pair. In both cases, the books delivered unexpected lessons in grace, patience, and fortitude. I had forgotten both authors have more to say than their plots.
Levy’s Hot Milk, short listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, focuses on the relationship of an English Rose, a hypochondriac mother and her daughter, Sophia, who uses her dutiful caring of her mother to avoid her own life. Sophie has an ABD (all but dissertation) in anthropology; she is constantly observing and internalizing. Frequently, I wanted to tell her to stop studying life around her and start living her own.
Sophia’s father, a Greek who has remarried a younger woman, appears later in the drama, contributing to Sophia’s angst, but the mother-daughter enabling relationship holds the focus. . . Levy lightens the mood with her wacky characters – my favorite, the “quack” doctor who seems made to order for a quack patient. And when Sophie leaves her mother in the middle of the road in a chapter titled “Matricide,” I laughed out loud at her frustration.
In Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do, the Weismanns of Westport reappear as the Bergmans of Manhattan, with an elderly dying father being cared for by his younger eighty-six year old wife. The scenes describing her caregiving may seem funny to some, but will strike a sad chord of familiarity for anyone who has been there.
The children surround and hover, intermittently ignoring and suffering their aging parents – making decisions from afar, not really wanting to acknowledge the reality. Although Schine uses the title from Philip Larkin’s famous poem, in her view it’s the children messing up the parents. After their father dies, they try to help their mother by buying her a dog and then a tricycle. When Joy finds companionship with an old friend, Karl, the story reminded me of Kent Haruf’s “Our Souls at Night.” Do all adult children have those same fears and reservations for their aging parents?Like Roz Chast in her graphic novel addressing adult children and aging parents, Schine does not shy away from difficult discussions but manages to cultivate the laughs.
Despite the sprinkling of humor, both books reflect on the misery and reality of aging, illness (real or imagined), and the ultimate prospect of death. Rightfully, the authors draw attention to matters needing to be discussed, observed, and perhaps offer some solutions, but to quote Roz Chast – can’t we talk about something more pleasant?
Against my instincts, I kept reading both. Because Hot Milk was a book for discussion by one of my groups, I soldiered on, sometimes wondering if the book was a translation (it was not). Because a good friend promised I would appreciate the ending of Schine’s book, I finished it.
The ending of Hot Milk was a surprise. Schine’s ending was also unexpected, but much easier and hopeful. We all die. Levy would have us philosophize our way to the end with an ironic laugh; Schine offers resignation with humor.