Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines' take on Constance.
Constance Schuyler is at first taken back when she visits the home of her husband, Sidney Klein, in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The neighborhood in rough and raw, a bit too much for this sheltered girl who grew up in Ravenswood, a crumbling, ramshackle house located deep in the Hudson River Valley. Beautiful Constance has taken the plunge and married dour Sidney,
and she has the unsettling sensation of living in two worlds at once.
as to why she has been chosen as a wife, Constance notices Sidney’s chilly hauteur that causes her to grow decidedly uneasy in the terms of the marriage that has been “established by him.”
She feels a sudden urge to defy Sidney and challenge his precise, logical mind, and she’s convinced that he
is not as creative as he thinks he is. Perhaps a modern version of a male chauvinist, Sidney possesses a “nobility of spirit” and takes to "the preservation of order" at all costs.
Hardly one to remain sober and repressed for any length of time, Constance’s younger sister, Iris, places her stamp of approval on Sidney.
Ever unhappy in love, Iris has come to New York to visit; within a week of her arrival,
she finds herself living a railroad apartment over a noodle shop in Chinatown. Iris amuses Sidney and he approves of her ambition to become a doctor,
though it is obvious from the outset that Iris drinks too much, likes older (married) men, and indulges in frank sexual talk
that makes Constance uncomfortable.
Unfolding in a slick, melodramatic tone that gradually pulls us in, McGrath explores the psycho-sexual notion that age-old problems, while sometimes over-the-top, are also distinctly modern. In the early 1960s, a woman had to be fairly courageous to challenge expected gender norms that required her to be married with children instead of being independent.
This notion is most characterized by Constance, who morphs from naivete into bitterness when a terrible family secret is revealed.
The conviction that Constance's father wrecked her life has permanently shackled and scarred her.
She blames Morgan, the seventy-year-old widower who is at once graceful and somber in temperament but also rather cold and mean--at least in Constance's eyes. With his health deteriorating at
a rapid pace, Morgan sees through the harsh, dreadful nights, determined to hold to the memory of Harriet, his late wife. Harriet’s secrets and Constance’s unexpected exposure to them justify Morgan’s corrosive rage and his shame.
The family skeletons set off a tragic set of incidents that seem quite unlikely but are totally realistic, considering the time and place. Lives are set apart when Constance allows Sidney a glimpse of her childish fears of abandonment and other various terrors. From the start, Sidney recognizes this “so-called sickness” and her inner fragility,
her inability to hold up under pressure. But there's also Constance's persistent, silent claims for sympathy in the face of what she sees as her father’s cruelty.
McGrath’s languid but taut prose promotes this sense of Iris’s mental disintegration and Constance’s emotional exhaustion. The author’s choice of dual narrators has Sidney cunningly taking advantage of Constance,
though neither party emerges from their ugly skirmish with their self-respect intact. Ironically, only hostile, unwavering Constance can bring everything full circle as she continues to see herself as a woman brutally deprived of her father’s once and only love.