In the vein of Just Kids, Patti Smith’s memoir about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, with her ninth novel Cathleen Schine (The Love Letter, The New Yorkers) has sketched a couple mangy young adults living in Manhattan in the mid-1960s—only these ones have trust funds and even more free time on their hands. Fin & Lady opens in 1964 on two orphaned half-siblings, 24-year-old Lady and 11-year-old Fin, whose mother has just died. Fin moves from his home in rural Pomfret, Connecticut, to live with beautiful, enigmatic Lady in Greenwich Village. There his life dissolves into a whirl of ice cream cones and Chinese food, subway rides for kicks, and trips to the Empire State Building. Lady teaches Fin to blow smoke rings and make martinis for her and her guests—a cast of suitors from well-to-do families of the east coast and Europe.
After the initial honeymoon period, Fin enrolls in a hippy-dippy private school called New Flower, where the kids learn about Pete Seeger and how not to experience themselves as commodities. Lady continues to go out on the town with her many eligible bachelors, proclaiming that any of life’s problems can be solved with sunglasses and pills. “Money is freedom,” she says.
Though some of the romantic notions that Smith explores so feverishly in Just Kids persist here (the allure of the revolutionary spirit, the relationship between creativity and self-destruction), the novel ends up much more concerned with its own gilded cage. It’s a story of languorous silences, gestures at feminism, and expensive family values. To a limited extent Fin & Lady engages with its historical moment. The protagonists are arrested at a Vietnam War protest; Fin reads Times obituaries of Flannery O’Connor, Ian Fleming, and Margaret Sanger. The political context in which the novel unfolds comes to complement it sweetly, even breezily. Race riots, communism, and war are transformed through Schine’s careful writing into objects of the characters’ fleeting interest, like marriage, knee socks, and sex. Lady, on the other hand, defies this law of quick glances, for no character—not her suitors, not Fin—is ever able to stop describing her. In Schine’s perceptive writing, Lady is alternately a beautiful free spirit, a caged bird, and an unwed Scarlett O’Hara. “This is 1964,” she proclaims. “I don’t belong to anyone.”