REVIEW: CONSTANCE BY PATRICK MCGRATH

CONSTANCE

Author: Patrick McGrath
Bloomsbury Circus RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

It’s interesting how cover art can convey different impressions to readers. Here are two covers of Patrick McGrath’s book, Constance. I have the one on the right – a woman with searching eyes, looking yonder. From her expression, I can imagine tears glittering, ready to fall. What is she thinking? Is she happy? It wasn’t the cover that drew me into this book – rather, the blurb, which hinted at a marriage haunted by the secrets of the past – but now that I see these two side-by-side, I feel that the one on the left sums up the story more accurately. A woman, clearly unhappy, even angry, trying to move forward (or away), but being held back by past ties. In a nutshell, that’s what Constance is about.

Media of Constance

From the moment I’d met Sidney, I wanted him for a daddy so I could start over. But you can’t do it! What a fool I’d been to believe it might be different. But by the time I realized this it was too late, I was already Mrs. Klein. Or Mrs. Schuyler Klein. 

Set in New York in the 1960s, Constance examines a period in the marriage of Constance and Sidney Klein. Sidney, a poetry professor, is some 20 years older than Constance. When they first meet at a literary party, he sees an aloof, mysterious beauty: “there was an air of angry untouchability about her that interested me considerably,” he says. Sidney pursues Constance with relentless determination, proposing marriage quickly, and refusing to give up when she declines initially. His persistence pays off: “She held me off for as long as she knew how but in the end she acquiesced.”

Despite her misgivings, Constance starts off viewing her marriage as a chance to start anew: “I intended to become my own woman … I saw myself reborn”. In Sidney, she sees a father figure who she hopes is different to her real father; she hopes the voice of scorn that shrouded her childhood will be replaced with the language of love she so desperately craves. Surely Sidney, a poet, can be that person for her? Once Constance realises her mistake in expecting her husband to be a loving father to her, she wants out. Deeply-held feelings of anger, jealousy and unhappiness she hoped would disappear upon her marriage, turned out to be buried in a shallow grave; gradually they reappear, chipping at her already fragile psyche, haunting her and consuming her.

When her father makes a devastating revelation, Constance’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart, and with it, her marriage. Self-destructive behaviours test Sidney’s patience and love; her relationship with her sister, already defined by a strange mix of love and jealousy, becomes strained. Her father, now that he has revealed his secret, is dying. While everybody pulls away from Constance (which she thought she wanted), only Sidney’s motherless son remains constant to her.

Told alternately from Constance and Sidney’s perspectives, Constance is a compelling read. With skill and tenderness, McGrath explores the complexity of family and marital relationships; it’s often hard to feel sympathy for Constance, but McGrath refrains from judging, keeping a note of tenderness throughout. It took me a while to get used to McGrath’s writing style, but then, just like that, I was engrossed. I had to find out whether this marriage would be salvaged.

Constance is an intriguing character. As a narrator, she’s unreliable because her retelling is so rooted in the past; she seems unable to let go and her tendency to define herself by others’ behaviour toward her (that is, her father) is frustrating. She blames everything on him and doesn’t seem to be able to take responsibility for her own happiness and future. For Sidney, I imagine she would have been draining, despite the attraction. Her gloomy, bleak outlook evokes a similar feeling in the reader; through characterisation like this, as well as the changing atmosphere of New York, the house by a river holding a secret, the dark father figure, McGrath creates an ominous atmosphere that lingers the length of the book.

I said this was set in the 1960’s. This was never stated explicitly, so how did I, an Australian reader with no knowledge of New York, figure this out? Google, of course. The demolition of Penn Station, referred to a number of times by Sidney and Constance, was my clue. It’s interesting that McGrath used this as a marker. The huge station was known for its architectural classical-style beauty but was in disrepair by the time it was demolished to make way for Madison Square Gardens, according to the New York Preservation Archive Project. Some described the demolition as vandalism, including Sidney. To him, the event is wanton – the station was being “destroyed before its time”; architecture is on par with marriage, so this is a significant indicator that he sees marriage as something to build, rather than something to destroy when/if it enters a state of disrepair. Metaphorically, Penn Station is Constance, his own classic, but crumbling beauty. Constance sees it differently; the increasing incidence of demolitions throughout the city represents the old making way for the new. Perhaps she sees marriage as a way of demolishing her past (and if it doesn’t work, tear it down) … only to discover that the architecture of a life is not so easily dismantled.

As a gothic-psychological thriller, Constance  is an engrossing and luminous read that ties together romance, doom, decay and mystery. It’s not going to be for everyone – the dual narrative is complicated at times in the way it switches back and forth in time. However, for those who love a literary tale bursting with atmosphere and subtle psychological nuances, give this one a try. Constance was my introduction to McGrath’s writing and I’m keen for more.

Available from good bookstores and Bloomsbury. This copy was courtesy of Bloomsbury Sydney.

Bookish treat: A bagel with cream cheese and lox (we call it smoked salmon) seems appropriately elegant.