"In the Family Way: An Urban Comedy"

A master chronicler of family life considers love and sex at the end of the '90s.


Polly Morrice
September 30, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

To create her sixth novel, Lynne Sharon Schwartz selects choice ingredients (marriage, family, life on Manhattan's Upper West Side) from her previous works and blends them into a literary froth. The culinary metaphor is apt, as Bea, the central character of "In the Family Way," runs a catering business. As the story opens, she's whipping up canapis while simultaneously baby-sitting her grandchild; fielding panicked phone calls from her mother, Anna; welcoming her teenage daughter, Shimmer (nee Sara), home from school and chatting with her younger sister, May, a lesbian artist.

At 49, Bea has graying hair but a face that retains "the lively hopefulness of youth." Throughout the novel, she acts as a sort of nurturer in chief, feeding strangers for a living while also providing emotional sustenance to her large extended family, most of whom live, as she does, in a 12-story apartment building just off Central Park West that Anna owns. This contrivance enables them to pop in on Bea at any time, for comforting advice or for a slice of her lemon-chiffon pie.

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Schwartz wryly acknowledges the enforced coziness of her setting by citing, in one of the novel's epigraphs, an aphorism by James Kaplan: "The true narrative form of our times is the sitcom." Thus, as Bea is putting the finishing touches on her hors d'oeuvres, her ex-husband -- Roy, a therapist, who lives downstairs -- is being seduced by his second ex-wife, Serena, who has left him for Bea's sister, May. (The two women live in the penthouse and, wanting a baby, have settled on Roy as the handiest source of good genes.)

Schwartz moves the story along through short scenes and punchy dialogue. Her players search for love, find it, decide they've made unsatisfying choices and move on to new partners. Rapid shifts in perspective give the multiple characters distinctive voices, but they also rein in Schwartz's formidable ability to fully evoke fictive worlds. In her 1983 novel "Disturbances in the Field," for instance, you felt yourself being immersed, chapter by chapter, in the textures and rhythms of family life. The new book moves too briskly for such luxury, although an extended flashback chronicling the preceding decade in the life of Bea, Roy and their family supplies accretions of domestic detail that provide some needed depth. Schwartz is especially good here on Anna's encroaching senility and her sexual longings, which remain as fierce as those of her children.

While "In the Family Way" generally lives up to its subtitle, "An Urban Comedy," there's no plethora of laugh lines. Rather, Schwartz makes a brave attempt to treat serious matters lightly, exploring Bea's guiding contention that "keeping the family together is more important than sexual jealousy ... that passes." As Bea practices it, this philosophy means endless tolerance and an elastic definition of family. As Roy applies it, it means a lingering hope of slipping back into Bea's bed: "Never say never, as he often told his despairing patients."

Schwartz's own view is one of detachment; the narrative tone is even or else gently mocking of these self-indulgent characters. In one telling scene, young Shimmer responds to her mother's reminder to use birth control with her boyfriend by spitting out: "But we're not even doing it yet ... just because the rest of you are always jumping into bed, it doesn't mean I have to be the same way."

This, finally, may be Schwartz's point. In matters of love, sex and family, you have to find your own way -- and be prepared to live with the consequences.


Polly Morrice

Polly Morrice is a Houston writer.

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