Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury ANZ
Constance grew up in a Victorian house, a somewhat miserable childhood that became even more so upon the death of her mother when she was 12. It fell to Constance to be a mother to her younger sister Iris, the apple of their father’s eye. Constance always felt as though she received nothing but hostility from her distant father and her memories of him and feelings about him are very different to what Iris has.
Now adults, Constance lives in New York and works in publishing. She meets Sidney, a professor with tenure at a University and marries him, her idea of trading one father figure for another, except with this one, she believes she will receive all the love and affection she didn’t get as a child. Iris is now a bit of a lush, working in a hotel near the Bowery and Constance still hasn’t lost that mothering instinct when it comes to her sister, who is involved with a man that is clearly married and whom Constance knows will only hurt and disappoint her.
At first Sidney and Constance live their life in relative isolation from others – but then Constance’s father grows ill, possibly having had a stroke and Sidney’s ex-wife also becomes ill which means that Sidney’s child from that marriage begins to spend more and more time with them. Constance had never wanted to play a role in his life – he had a mother and she wasn’t interested in repeating the past and once again assuming responsibility for someone else’s child. But she finds herself drawn to the thin, quiet, smart Howard. However her life is shattered when her father drops a bombshell on her, his attempts to ‘make things right’ splintering Constance’s fragile grip on her existence and idea of who she is even further.
I own several Patrick McGrath novels – they sit patiently on my TBR shelf, waiting for me. When I received this one for review, I was glad that it would give me the extra push I needed to dive in and try a writer that I’ve been curious about. Constance is his most recent novel, set in 1960’s Manhattan, the story of a family and the shifting relationships and tragedy contained within it.
The novel is told from both Constance’s and Sidney’s point of view and these are not always the same. Constance is somewhat fragile, a brittle character who is much wrapped up in her perceived alienation by her father. She remembers her childhood in a very definite way, she remembers little love and affection, barely any interaction from her father, an austere doctor now retired. Her sister Iris remembers things differently – she has no trouble communicating with their father and she finds him easy to love and feels loved in return. Although Constance and Iris are close in some ways, in others they are worlds apart. Constance values success – she wants to go far in publishing, she wants to do something, be something, to wipe out the feelings she has of failure that carry over from her childhood. Iris could study to be a doctor but instead works in a hotel, falling into affairs with unsuitable men and drinking too much. She’s passionate, concerned little with success. She feels deeply and when her lover breaks it off with her, she seems quite sure that she won’t survive the loss. Constance, who doesn’t seem to be blessed with much feeling or compassion, despite her craving to be loved, is mostly dismissive of Iris.
We get Sidney’s view of how he and Constance met and his feelings for her both when they married and after. Although significantly older than her, Sidney seemed good for Constance – or he could’ve been, should she chosen to have allowed him to be. Instead she seemed to fixed on her ‘Daddy’ issues, too determined to make Sidney something he wasn’t or see him as something he wasn’t. She accuses him of being against her when her paranoia about her father seems to be escalating and she is quite often dismissive of him. Despite the way that she treats him, Sidney remains steadfastly loyal to her, even in the face of betrayal.
This is an interesting book, one where my feelings for it are not easy to articulate, even to myself. I didn’t like Constance, but at times I felt for her. I think it’s very hard to be so ruled by your ideas of your existence that when these are shaken, there’s no where left to go but down. At times I felt for her, at times I couldn’t see the necessity for the emotional drama. So much of herself was tied up in one man, love and hate that she didn’t really know how to feel. When he became ill, she insisted upon nursing him, even then it seemed, unwilling to let go of the hold he had on her life. The thing that redeemed Constance a little for me, was the way she came to care for Sidney’s son, Howard. It seems she wasn’t going to repeat past mistakes by parental figures in her life and make other children miserable. It takes guts to be able to make that decision, even more so to stick with it.
Book #177 of 2013