Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: "They May Not Mean To, But They Do" by Cathleen Schine

The challenges, frustrations, and fears associated with aging parents and how to care for them (even when they're not interested in being cared for) are issues that many have dealt with or will struggle with in their lifetime. Is our way always the right way? Do we heed our parents' wishes even if we don't think they're in their best interests, or that they even understand their wishes? How can we balance our feelings with what they're feeling?

In Cathleen Schine's new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, 84-year-old Joy Bergman loves her husband Aaron so much that she alone is caring for him as he deals with dementia and the aftereffects of bowel cancer. She still works full-time at a small museum in New York City, even though the new technology befuddles her, and she's exhausted more often than not. But she cannot fathom putting Aaron in a nursing home or assisted living facility (they're riddled with disease), hiring someone to help her care for him (too many strangers), or slowing down her own life (what would she do then?).

Joy's decisions concern and frustrate her two children, Molly and Daniel. While Molly lives in California with her wife, Daniel lives with his wife and children in New York, and both can't seem to understand why their mother won't make it easier on herself. They love their father and are saddened watching his decline, but they also want their mother to take care of herself, yet she refuses their help and advice at every turn, although she's not above throwing some Jewish guilt into the mix every now and again.

An unexpected health crisis for Joy, followed by Aaron's death, leaves her both more vulnerable and more resolute in her decision to "age in place." She isn't interested in making new friends, developing hobbies, moving out of their apartment into an assisted living facility, or discussing her finances with her children, despite their continued individual and collective pleas. And when Karl, a man she dated before she married Aaron, re-enters her life, she is both giddy with the possibility of not being alone, and frightened by what any step toward a relationship could mean. Needless to say, her children want her to have nothing to do with Karl—and aren't above throwing a little guilt of their own at their mother.

"The Bergmans against the world. There was no room for an outsider. The emptiness left by Aaron's death was not a space to be filled; it was a bond to be protected."

They May Not Mean To, But They Do explores the emotions, the roadblocks, and the fears that everyone deals with when parents get older and their physical and mental well-being becomes shakier. Schine does a good job not to take sides in the conflicts between Joy and her children, and explores how those on the sidelines—spouses, grandchildren, friends—have an even tighter road to navigate, supporting their loved ones but deciding where to voice their own opinions. While this is a moving topic, Schine tells her story with humor and imbues all of her characters with flaws, so no one appears to be the "winner" in this debate.

I thought the book was well-written but it never really reached the heights I expected it to. While I certainly understand all of the characters' emotions and actions, Joy, Molly, and Daniel are all fairly unappealing, and there were times I wanted to shake each of them because their passive-aggressive behavior, their denial, and their guilt was just too much. Some of the plot was a little too formulaic for me. But while this book didn't engage me as much as I hoped it would, I know others have loved it, so perhaps those closer (or further away) from the central themes of the book may enjoy it more. Schine's storytelling is always a joy to behold, however.

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