As practiced by the modest narrator of this winsome novel, “Aunt” becomes a full-fledged profession. If there were aunt certification boards, Louise would rate high honors.
Although the story is told in a series of flashbacks, “Instead of You” officially begins when Charlotte Asher, the elder of two sisters, is killed in a bizarre auto accident. Driving home to the suburbs behind a truckload of Halloween pumpkins, she sees them tumbling off the flatbed; she swerves and hits a telephone pole.
When bereaved husband Sam delivers the frightful message to sister Louise, she walks out of her own life, leaving her New York apartment, her job as a music teacher and her significant other, a struggling screenwriter named Richard. Within hours, she’s taken charge of her dazed brother-in-law and her two young nieces, planning to stay only until they can hire a suitable person to manage the household.
Although Louise makes an effort to find a surrogate, both she and her sister’s family realize that only one person could even begin to replace Charlotte--Louise. She had been practicing for that role all her life, struggling to keep up with her dynamic, capable, witty older sister. Finally accepting the fact that there could only be one Charlotte, Louise had quietly settled for second best.
The rivalry has long since been over when she suddenly finds herself obliged to compete all over again with the sister who has been not only a perfect mother and wife, but a favored daughter as well.
Always the more adventurous of the two girls, Charlotte was the leader and the free spirit. Married, she embraced domesticity with a vengeance. Her garden was an inspiration, her dinner parties memorable, her children, Sara and Anne, paragons. Louise intends to stay only until “we find the right person and get our bearings.” To prove it, she diligently pays her apartment rent each month.
Because Louise’s boyfriend is in Hollywood and the school has found a substitute to take her classes, there’s no real reason for her to rush back to the city. While she would be the last to admit it, this tragedy is Louise’s chance to prove, once and for all, that she’s every bit as efficient and talented as Charlotte--to prove it not only to herself, but to her parents, her domineering grandfather and his intrepid 90-year-old sister, and to Charlotte’s heartbroken daughters and husband. If foot-dragging boyfriend Richard were to see her as a model of all the wifely graces, he might even recover from his chronic non-commitment syndrome and whisk her away to a rural paradise of her own.
These subversive thoughts are never expressed by either Louise or the author, but they inevitably occur to the reader, who hopes that will be exactly what happens--a pat and predictable ending for the book, but the life Louise deserves and desires.
Schraft is too subtle and skillful by far to offer this ending. Instead of bringing Richard back from the coast to see Louise gracefully coping with her awesome responsibilities, the author leaves him in Hollywood to take meetings and do lunches. Louise performs her wonders for an audience of her mother, her nieces and Sam, all of whom soon begin to take her for granted. She’s appreciated most by a scholarly Teddy bear of a fellow named Fred, who is no match for the glamorous Richard.
In the course of the suburban sojourn, Louise’s father takes a marital holiday from her mother; old age abruptly overwhelms her indomitable great aunt, and her autocratic grandfather becomes more irascible than ever. Between these new family crises, Louise relives her own childhood with Charlotte, coming to the realization that her sister’s relentless pursuit of perfection in all things may have masked insecurities more complex than Louise’s own.
Telling this fundamentally melancholy story with a delicately light touch, Schraft has produced an appealing novel that begins with a catastrophe and ends with a transformation.
INSTEAD OF YOU: by Constance Schraft Ticknor & Fields $19.95, 206 pages
Next: Carolyn See reviews “The World of Nagaraj” by R.K. Narayan (Viking).