Cathleen Schine

"She is Me"

(Reviewed by Shannon Bloomstran SEP 24, 2003)

If I say She is Me is the intergenerational story of three strong willed women, each their own person, it sounds like fodder for a banal and weepy tale about the power of a mother's love. It most definitely is not. If I say it's about adultery, same-sex relationships, and the mysteries of marriage, it sounds like a dime store potboiler, which it most definitely is not. What it is, is an almost claustrophobically intimate story of a mother, daughter, and grandmother, each coming to grips with a central facet of their lives, one with mortality, one with sexuality, and one with identity.

Read excerptThe emotional center of the novel concerns Greta, a quintessential California empty nester who runs a small landscaping business. Her mother, Lotte, also lives in Los Angeles and is battling a particularly nasty type of cancer that has attacked her formerly flawless (as she tells everyone) face. Lotte, described as "a pistol" by many a doctor, frequently recounts "Hitler should have my pain," and is given to many a backhanded compliment. Greta spends much of her time caring for Lotte, someone who can't go for a day without firing a housekeeper. Lotte is a character, although Schine plays her with utter seriousness, rarely allowing any comic relief.

When Greta herself is diagnosed with colon cancer, her daughter, Elizabeth arrives on her doorstep, son and boyfriend-who-very-much-wants-to be-married in tow. Elizabeth, who seems to have been a serious infant, a serious child, and a serious adolescent, is now a serious academic who has somehow been plucked from obscurity to write a screenplay retooling Flaubert's classic tale, Madame Bovary for the twenty-first century. Any novelist who chooses to use this masterpiece as a centerpiece cannot avoid issues of adultery, and Schine does not disappoint. The book is packed with riffs on the adultery theme, from academic courses, to rationalizations, to delight, and to horror. None is gratuitous, all central to the plot and none portrayed in a lurid or titillating manner.

Most of She Is Me takes place inside the minds and homes of the three women. At times it seems more like a series of domestic vignettes than a novel. Although this does lend intimacy to the characters, necessary in a novel this personal and introspective, it also results in an overly close and clammy aura. At times I was reminded of the song "Tonight" in West Side Story where each character sings his own version of what will happen tonight. Each of the women interacts with each other, but they are all very much in their own world. Scenes shift quickly, as they do in life of course, and readers need to pay careful attention or risk whiplash.

The book is slim, less than 300 pages, and winds up quickly with a not quite happy, not quite Hollywood ending. Each woman must come into her own, and at least for Greta, this involves living quite a different life than she had before. While it's not "Madame Bovary," She Is Me is an interesting, complex, and contemplative story of marriage and family.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 7 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from She is Me at

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Catherine Schine divides her time between New York City and Los Angeles. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014