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'They May Not Mean To' Is A Wry, Warm Look At The Indignities Of Aging

During my parents' last winters in Florida, each time I visited I would stealthily vanquish the ghosts of meals past from their refrigerator and run all their smudged glassware through the dishwasher and their stained clothing through the wash. They no longer saw the spots, and my mother, leached by Alzheimer's, no longer cared — though she was still with it enough to take umbrage at my interference.

I was reminded of this — and more — while reading Cathleen Schine's charming new novel, which takes a warm, humorous look at a potentially unfunny subject: the upset that occurs on both sides of the generational divide when the seesaw of care tilts from elderly parents down to their grown offspring. They May Not Mean To, But They Do takes its title from a clever inversion of Philip Larkin's memorable lines, "They f— you up, your mum and dad./They may not mean to, but they do." In Schine's wise and witty book, it's well-meaning adult children who do a number on their increasingly frail parents by threatening their independence.

A return to form after Fin & Lady, Schine's latest has more in common with The Three Weissmanns of Westport, which featured a plucky older woman set adrift by an unexpected late life divorce. Although both narratives venture out of town — to Connecticut and California — don't be fooled: Schine's characters are dyed-in-the-wool, uptown Jewish Manhattanites, and They May Not Mean To is a fond ode to a city that, it turns out, isn't such a bad locale to age in place, especially if you live in a rent-controlled doorman building near a coffee shop that delivers.

When the novel begins, feisty, vulnerable, invincible 86-year-old Joy Bergman is under siege. Aaron, her financially feckless but beloved husband of more than 60 years, is suffering from Alzheimer's. Increasingly, Joy spends her nights cleaning up the mess from his colostomy bag, which he keeps pulling out. She is barely hanging onto her job as a museum conservator, which she worked her way toward after the first of her husband's bankruptcies. She's exhausted, but she doesn't want to tell her children how bad things are; she knows they'll urge her to get help she can't afford or put Aaron in a home. "He has a home," is Joy's unwavering response. One of her daughters-in-laws wonders whether people would be more receptive if they were called nursing hotels rather than homes.

The Bergmans are that rarity in domestic fiction — a close, functional family. And Joy is one lucky mother: Both her children love her unequivocally and are married to kind, smart women. Aaron sums up the family attitude when he serenades her, "Joyful, Joyful, we adore thee."

'They May Not Mean To' is a fond ode to a city that, it turns out, isn't such a bad locale to age in place, especially if you live in a rent-controlled doorman building near a coffee shop that delivers.

Joy's son stops by frequently on his way home from work. Her daughter "broke her mother's heart when she divorced her "perfectly reasonable husband so she could be a lesbian in California," but she calls her mother every day. "Her mother's voice made her feel safe, safe from the loss of her mother," Schine writes with feeling.

Safety is a big concern, but so is money. After things go downhill for Aaron, the Bergmans' home "teemed with people in rubber gloves," a level of care that Joy, "hanging on by a bourgeois thread," knows she can't sustain. Bereft and weakened after he dies, the lonely widow strives to reassure her concerned children that she's okay. For a time, they happily buy the false security: "They both smiled, thinking of their mother safe, clean, and comfortable in her apartment, her Life Alert wristband securely fastened."

Schine weaves in several subplots for texture, including a country house under threat and a lascivious father-in-law who keeps getting kicked out of nursing homes. She sends them all up — gently — with details likely to spark recognition: the fridge filled with what looks like petri dishes; unsorted towers of bills; frustration with unfamiliar technology. Ironically, what alarms Joy's kids most is when she reconnects with an old beau. "It's up to us to protect her," they declare with what Schine nails as "loving condescension."

The novel plays all this for a combination of mirth and pathos, down to its wry, open-ended conclusion. Admirably, Schine has sympathy to spare for both the reluctantly dependent elderly and their worried offspring. But what makes They May Not Mean To, But They Do stand out is its warm-hearted sensitivity to the losses, indignities, fears — and plucky determination — of old age.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.