My name is Constance Schuyler Klein. the story of my life begins the day I married an Englishman called Sidney Klein and said good-bye forever to Ravenswood and Daddy and all that went before. I have a husband now. I thought, a new daddy. I intended to become my own woman. I intended, oh, I intended everything. I saw myself reborn. Gone forever the voice of scorn and disapproval, the needling, querulous voice so unshakable in its conviction that I was worthless, worse than worthless, unnecessary. Sidney didn’t think I was unnecessary and this was a man who knew the world and could recite Shakespeare by heart. He said he loved me and when I asked him why, he said, Better ask why the sky is blue. It changed everything. If before I trod the streets of New York City with the diffident step of a stranger, I exulted now in all that had so recently troubled me, the crowds, the speed, the noise, the voices. (page 1)
Then came the wedding.
It was only afterward, after the lunch in the restaurant, with my sister Iris disgracing herself, and Daddy being so angry, that I asked myself just what I thought I was doing. Who did I think I was, a proper person? The new world crumpled like a balled sheet of paper thrown in the fire and I was left with a few charred remnants and some ash. In my diminishment and humiliation I thought of Sidney’s mother, a little twisted rheumatic madwoman who’d shown up for our wedding dressed all in black. I was a shriveled think like her. I was Sidney’s mother. I tried to tell him what had happened to me but he didn’t want to hear it. It didn’t conform to his idea of me. It was the first time I saw this clearly, and seeing it, I realized how foolish I’d been to think I might for even an instant have believed I’d be loved — (page 2)
Sometimes reading a book will strike a cord with a reader – resonating in a way that can be both pleasant and unpleasant. Constance by Patrick McGrath was one such book for me. The novel, set in New York, is about a young woman in the 1960’s who is a book editor in the city. She was raised with her younger sister in a large house overlooking the Hudson river upstate and her young life is clearly divided by her mother’s death when she was a child. Left with her distant father, a housekeeper who can barely look at her, and her sister, Constance has a traumatic past and, as you can tell from the quote above, father issues.
So when Constance meets an older, divorced Englishman academic with a sensitive young son, she thinks she may have finally found someone to love her (although she is not particularly thrilled about the son part). Sidney is a poet with a dark book-filled New York apartment that echos the darkness of Ravenswood, Constance’s childhood home where her father still lives in declining health. After a pursuit by Sidney they eventually marry but Constance remains unsettled and becomes almost obsessive over memories of her childhood. Her life is further complicated by her hard drinking sister and her sister’s dubious employment and an even more dubious boyfriend. And then some casually delivered news sends her over the edge and she is filled with a tumult of bitterness and anger which sends her careening through her life.
Constance is full of dark and brooding places – a decaying mansion, a claustrophobic apartment, a dilapidated hotel, Penn Station being demolished. And the narrative, alternating between Constance and her husband Sidney echoes all that angst. I had the feeling that Constance may be an unreliable narrator and when I first reached Sidney’s narrative I was relieved – finally some stable ground. And then McGrath leads you to doubt Sidney as well leaving the reader as shaky as Constance herself. By the end, I felt I may have finally come to some stability but there is still an aspect of unsureness. For instance, I have difficult remembering the ending of the novel and so I have to think – did the novel end this way – no it ended in this way instead. So why do I keep having this feeling of dissonance – it must be due to the author’s skill as well as my own past.
This novel struck such a cord with me because I, along with Constance, have a father who treats me differently than my brother. After long years of wondering, I have come to a place of peace without knowing the why although my brother still longs to know. It may be because I am female, it may be that my father simply never liked me, it may be a multitude of reasons in some complex ball of knotted psychology. I am okay with the unknown – Constance is not but knowing the reason does not lead to stability for her. And while the author leaves us with a small ray of hope – a part of me just cannot accept that Constance is finally complete within herself.
One more note, I have difficulty in thinking of this novel as an “it”, as an inanimate object. I find myself thinking of the novel as a “she”; a feeling reinforced by the title itself as well as the pervasive presence throughout the novel of Constance, a young woman in mental anguish. All of this takes some skill as a writer to pull off and while this would ordinarily lead me to want to read more of McGrath’s work, I am hesitant – I found the novel to be a tad unsettling. McGrath taps into the human need to be loved, to have a place in this world, to be nurtured, to be wanted and then shows us how destructive it is when we are denied the vary things that make us whole.