Constance by Patrick McGrath

In brief: After Sidney marries Constance, life is meant to be good. But a revelation in the family sends Constance spinning off the rails and her family into downfall…

The good: Gothic elements combined with tortuous love make for a great winter weather read.

The not-so-good: So sad in places – poor Constance is incredibly unlucky.

Why I chose it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury Sydney, who know better than me what I like to read! Thank you.

Year: 2013

Pages: 244

Publisher: Bloomsbury Circus

Setting: New York and surrounds

My rating: 9 out of 10

Constance is one of those books that throws you straight into the action, where you can make the choice to sink or swim. It’s a thinking person’s book where part of the pleasure is in joining the dots by yourself. Let me give you an example – no time period is revealed for this book, but the characters make mention of Penn Station being torn down. Hmm, you think. When did that happen? Or, you might think, didn’t Don Draper mention something about that in Mad Men? So you decide that this book is set in the 1960s – but really, given the topics covered, Constance is relevant to any time period.

Constance didn’t have an easy childhood. She and her sister Iris were brought up in a crumbly old mansion in the country. Life became isolated further when their mother died. Constance has always found her relationship with her father fraught with an undertow she can’t understand while Iris is the light of his life. So when Sidney, an older lecturer, steps into Constance’s life, she’s eager to marry him to find a true father figure.

Initially, life with Sidney is great. Then Iris moves to the city and things begin to unravel. Constance meddles in Iris’s love affair and then her father drops a bombshell that explains everything but tries to destroy Constance in the process. Constance falls apart, not knowing where she stands. Her relationship with Iris becomes tense and awkward. Eventually, tragedy strikes on multiple occasions and Sidney needs to save Constance from herself. Will he succeed or will Constance drown herself in her sorrows?

I loved this book. Told from the first person point of view of Sidney and Constance, it gives differing views of events that happen. Both characters are marvellously flawed – Sidney with his need to teach and protect Constance, yet can’t write the words he feels and Constance, whose mood starts to swing wildly as the novel progresses. Who is telling the truth? Who is caught up in their own fantasies? Initially, I felt inclined to disbelieve Constance due to the tragedies that had befallen her – perhaps she was mentally unwell. But sometimes, her pouring out of emotion rang painfully true and yet other times I felt her plan was to torture Sidney for loving her. I felt the Sidney had the best of intentions initially, but later I felt he was trying to make Constance weaker than what she was so that he could keep her in the marriage. In between all of this is Sidney’s son, Howard, from a previous marriage. His reactions to the arguments, drinking and general unpleasantness that occurs between Sidney and Constance are probably the closest thing to truth that the reader gets.

McGrath evokes a wonderful Gothic-like setting when describing Constance’s family home – it reminded me of something out of We Have Always Lived in the Castle. You can almost feel the dank and damp surroundings and the ghosts hovering in doorways. It provides a suitably spooky backdrop to all the tragic things that happen there, making them seem even more horrific.

While the ending (at a dusty, deconstructing Penn Station no less) is somewhat hopeful, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the marriage between Don and Betty Draper. Will Constance, Sidney and Howard survive the city and each other?

A wonderfully creepy and morose book that had me captivated, Constance is well worth reading, especially if you enjoy Richard Yates’ work.

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