Cathleen Schine (shin) has carved a niche for herself as a novelist of ideas who gives the genre of the intellectual novel a distinctly feminist slant. Increasingly respected as a novelist, she is also a well-known journalist and cultural commentator.
Schine lived an undramatic suburban childhood marred in her late adolescence by an automobile accident that caused severe facial damage. She went through an extensive period of convalescence, both physical and psychological, which later served as the model for the experience of the title character in her first novel, Alice in Bed. After graduating from college, Schine moved to Greenwich Village in New York City, where she undertook graduate studies at New York University. Schine originally intended to become a professor of medieval studies, and she did considerable doctoral work in that field. Some of her interests were in the millenarian thought of the Middle Ages and in the society of Renaissance Florence. She decided that the academic life was not for her, however, and undertook to pursue a literary career.
Schine’s first novel, Alice in Bed, was—like many first novels—autobiographical, though the book is told in the third person. The book explores the irony that, even though Alice suffers as a result of her incapacitation, being “in bed” is, in a sense, the natural condition for an intellectual, emphasizing as it does the contemplative over the active. “In bed,” of course, also has a sexual connotation, with Alice having several sordid, somewhat involuntary affairs with the doctors treating her at the hospital.
The most prominent relationship in the book, however, is between Alice and her mother, an ornithologist. Alice’s conflicts with her parents are explored in the traditional vein of Jewish humor. This influence contributes to the end of the book, where Alice, finally out of the hospital, becomes romantically involved with a doctor named Nick—somewhat ironically, in that her entire ambition through most of the book had been to get out of the reach of doctors. Alice in Bed received an unusual amount of notice for a first novel. Many reviewers praised its wry, distanced tone and its engaging narrator. Others, though, complained that the book had an overly negative view of romantic love and that its characters were insufficiently idealistic.
To the Birdhouse, published in 1990, is in some ways a sequel to Alice in Bed. Both Alice and her mother are characters in the novel, and the mother’s ornithology supplies the basis for the title. The focus of the book, though, is on the man to whom Alice’s mother has gotten inexplicably engaged, the scapegrace cad Louis Scifo. In the manner of the classic villain, Scifo is the most colorful and absorbing character in the book. To the Birdhouse is a more “literary” novel than its predecessor; its title alludes to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and thus raises the spectre of the book’s participation in a feminist literary tradition—although somewhat sardonically. The book also has its narrative interrupted by passages of mock-ornithological observation, giving the book a more self-conscious feel.
By 1993, Schine had become increasingly prominent as a journalist (she wrote frequently for The New York Times Magazine) and was married to the prominent New York magazine film critic David Denby. Like To the Birdhouse, her 1993 novel Rameau’s Niece alludes to a previous literary work, Le Neveu de Rameau (1821; Rameau’s Nephew, 1897), by the eighteenth century French philosopher Denis Diderot. Schine’s most overtly intellectual work, Rameau’s Niece features Margaret Nathan, who is both successful in her public life (she is a feminist historian whose work concerns the currents of postmodern critical debate) and frustrated in her private life (she feels her marriage is overly conventional). Margaret finds herself possessed by a presence from the eighteenth century, and she explores various extramarital relationships.
The novel has as a subtext the disillusionment of left-wing American intellectuals with Soviet-style communism; the novel’s embrace of a more ironic and self-knowing Enlightenment ideology implies support for the democratic “Velvet Revolution” that took place in Czechoslovakia in 1989. The book ends with Margaret returning to her husband, whose love is, for her, superior to any philosophy. This echoes the end of Voltaire’s Candide (1759), in which the protagonist stops searching for the best of all possible worlds and concentrates on cultivating his own garden. Voltaire, however, retained an inquiring spirit that is alien to the conventional ending of Rameau’s Niece. Many critics were impressed with the book’s combination of pastiche and feminist self-assessment; others wished that the book had shown more comprehension of the intellectual debates it satirized.
The Love Letter departs from the intellectual concerns of Schine’s two previous books. Its heroine, a divorced, fortyish academic named Helen MacFarquhar, is a cold, crisp woman who runs a bookstore in New England with an iron hand. She enters into an improbable but intense romance with twenty-year-old Johnny, and the relationship changes her life; Johnny’s yieldingness and lack of pretension release Helen’s latent sensitivity and charm. The book was widely marketed as a kind of classier version of Robert James Waller’s massively successful The Bridges of Madison County (1992); thus, what Schine may have lost in literary prestige, she gained in popularity. In 1998, Schine was hailed for her novel on the evolution of friendship, The Evolution of Jane, in which the protagonist and her best friend from childhood, Martha, are reunited during a trip to the Galápagos Islands and attempt to understand what event precipitated the abrupt end of their friendship.
Schine continues to write columns and reviews for various publications, including The New York Review of Books, and another novel, She Is Me, appeared in 2003.
Levin, Donna. “Alice—Out of Bed, Still Wacky.” San Francisco Chronicle, July 8, 1990. Covers Schine’s first two works.
Schine, Cathleen. “Cathleen Schine: Romancing the Bookseller.” Interview by Maria Simpson. Publishers Weekly, May 8, 1995. Schine details how she began to write and how she chooses her subjects.
See, Carolyn. “Philosopher in the Bedroom.” The Washington Post Book World, May 9, 1993, 5. A review of Rameau’s Niece.
Shields, Carol. “His Kisses Taste Like Bubble Gum.” The New York Times Book Review, May 28, 1995, 6. A review of The Love Letter.