Fin & Lady

In a delightful parallel to 'Auntie Mame,' two half-siblings (who have been estranged for years) find that their personal lives change drastically when tragedy throws them together. 

Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 288 pages

What if Holly Golightly had a trust fund instead of a "candy store"?

The gamine at the heart of Fin & Lady, Cathleen Schine's ninth novel, has a younger brother, not an older one, but she shares more than a few traits with Truman Capote's iconic heroine.

This quirky, engaging novel tells the story of 11-year-old Fin, who finds himself in the care of glamorous, flighty Lady after his mother dies. Fin has only met his half-sister once before she scoops him up from the family farm and whisks him off to Greenwich Village in her Kharmann Ghia.

Assessing her adorably sober charge as “too old for a nap, too young for a drink,” Lady prescribes Broadway musicals and ice cream sodas at Schrafft's.

Lady, who ran away to Europe rather than become a teenage bride, was spoken about in whispers in Fin's house, if at all. The younger Fin was a little confused by the term "half-sister," and envisioned half a sibling. "Fin was left with the pictures of a girl cut off at the waist, of two legs, two feet, two black patent-leather shoes, two white socks."

While Lady swears by cigarettes, pills and sunglasses and can juggle rats as easily as Holly, her younger, more serious brother hails from a different movie.

Despite growing up in New York decades apart, Fin and Patrick Dennis from “Auntie Mame” could compare notes. Like Patrick, Fin can make a mean martini before he reaches high school and peppers his guardian with questions after dinner parties like “Who's A.J Muste? Why shouldn't honkies play trumpets? What's a honky? Where's Port Huron? What pill?”

Also like Patrick, Fin attends an experimental school where, in his case, they read Bob Dylan liner notes instead of books in English class and arrange colored blocks in math.

But the coltish Lady lacks Auntie Mame's essential optimism. Despite her determination to live free of society's dictates, she's still obsessed by the fact that she's reaching the ripe old age of 25 without getting married. Fin is supposed to help her pick out a husband, but her most persistent suitors just don't suit. Lawyer Tyler, whom Lady left at the altar when she was 18, keeps suggesting boarding school (or foster parents) for Fin. Fin adores Biffi, a Hungarian immigrant with excellent taste in books who survived both the Nazi and the Soviet invasions, but Lady isn't quite as smitten.

Brother and sister set up in unconventional domesticity, fueled by Lady's fortune, which means that there are no pesky money worries. They don't even have to do chores, since their Greenwich Village home is presided over by Mabel, who serves as the voice of reason and the source of clean sheets and home-cooked meals.

“Fin & Lady” is a slight but charming novel, ideal for summer. Schine (“The Three Weissmans of Westport”) captures the changing times in New York, as Fin goes from “Hello, Dolly” to peace sit-ins.

"Looking back, you might think New York in the sixties was tailor-made for Lady. The language of the counter culture, 'liberation;' that word, on its own, should have welcomed Lady into its loose flowing embrace.… And of course, there was the Liberated Woman. Lady had always been a Liberated Woman. In her fashion. But, in fact, in her fashion, Lady did not take to the sixties at all.”

Take communes, for example: “Why would she eat undercooked lentils and sleep on a ratty mattress on the floor when she could sleep in her own house and eat lamb chops and baked potatoes?”

The story is told by a mystery narrator, whose presence is gradually made known. While the shadowy “I” can seem coyly intrusive in the beginning, Schine works the new character into the fabric of the novel and straight into the heartwarming conclusion.

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