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About Schmidt (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – September 8, 1997
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Albert Schmidt is a retired lawyer who misses his recently deceased wife, has an unhealthy diet, is a mild anti-Semite and owns a nice home in the Hamptons he feels compelled to offer to his daughter as a wedding present. Said daughter, Charlotte, is a yuppie in all the worst ways. She handles public relations for tobacco companies, doesn't want the house in the Hamptons, and is about to marry a buttoned-up Jewish lawyer. The conflict takes off from there in this finely told tale of retirement, inheritance, and death. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Both Auchincloss's sophisticated comedies of WASP manners and the terrain mapped in Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day come to mind as comparisons for Begley's new novel, but his discerning intellect and lapidary prose distinguish this powerful story of a man whose fall from grace has a double-edged irony. Albert Schmidt retired from his job in a white-shoe New York law office during his wife's terminal illness. In his 60s, he lives in her magnificent family home in the exclusive Long Island community of Bridgehampton, where he makes sardonic observations about those who betray his archaic values and rigid social standards. The most egregious traitor is his beautiful, brilliant (i.e., Harvard summa cum laude) daughter, Charlotte, whose decision to marry a blatantly ambitious Jewish lawyer is a bitter blow to Schmidt?although he remains outwardly civil. Schmidt has no idea that his cool, remote behavior has alienated Charlotte, that she is aware of the veiled anti-Semitism he himself denies and that her new family, which Schmidt thinks vulgar, offers the warmth and human contact he has never provided. With sublime, delicious irony, Begley shows Schmidt's bizarre metamorphosis from a pillar of rectitude to a silly old fool; a Puerto Rican waitress younger than Charlotte is the instrument of Schmidt's descent down the primrose path. Taking advantage of Schmidt's loneliness, streetwise Carrie uses her sexual wiles to move herself and her drug-dealing boyfriend into his house and life. Begley guides the narrative with smooth aplomb and dry humor, providing a wealth of acutely observed social detail and a clear depiction of emotional dysfunction. Though his classic Holocaust novel, Wartime Lies, is a standard Begley can't improve upon, this elegant, sophisticated novel is another study in self-deception that confirms his reputation as a masterful literary novelist.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Top customer reviews
The hero is a grumpy old man. If you're grumpy and old at heart like I am, then you will relate. He smokes and drinks, all the time, with no repercussions. He says what he wants. He does what he wants. He's single, and best of all, all women everywhere - young and old - find him irresistible and want to sleep with him. It's a fantasy such that even while you enjoy reading, you realize it is laughably unrealistic. The words "unintentionally funny" come to mind. Schmidt is a bit like you would imagine a retired James Bond to be. And who wouldn't want to be James Bond?
One thing that shocked me was how different from the movie the novel is. Except for the title and a few plot points, the stories have nothing in common whatsoever! This would have to be incredibly irksome for the author. I enjoyed the movie but I feel like whoever made it didn't even read this book. How disappointing, because it is a great book!
I will be reading the sequels. Recommended.
Since other reviewers have made general comments with which I generally agree, I want to focus on some specifics in both the novel and the movie (SPOILER ALERT for the rest of the review):
Anti-semitism/fight with the daughter: In Begley's novel, Schmidt's saddening parting from his daughter is interlaced with accusations of anti-semitism, that come to the fore because of her engagement to a Jewish attorney (whose career Schmidt had advanced before he retired). The movie instead bases the conflict over Schmidt's unhappiness with her fiancee's, let's say, mental ability. It is characteristic of Begley's complex approach that there is both a suspicion that Schmidt has been more openly anti-semitic than he lets on and also that his daughter, Charlotte, and her fiancee's family have departed from the realm of reason in addressing the problem. A case in point is how Charlotte tape records the conversation with Schmidt that precipitates the crisis. The conversation is unscheduled. What's the purpose of taping such a phone call? Or: if Charlotte et al have a plan in doing so, have Schmidt's clear past anti-semitic comments made it so likely that he will say something like that in discussing an inter-religious wedding ceremony? This is set-off against the fact that Schmidt's only close his friend his age is Jewish and also against his record of advancing younger lawyers who are. It's an unclear situation - no objective verdict is provided by Begley. Payne, a gentile Midwesterner, apparently did not find this topic as intriguing as Begley and simplified the conflict, making it only about Charlotte's fiancée.
Anti-bigotry combined with deep classism: One other prescient insight is suggested by Begley in the final conversation between Schmidt and his daughter, in his hospital bed. Charlotte complains that a woman (a young waitress named Carrie from a poorer Puerto Rican background) is living at the house, over which Charlotte has just renounced ownership rights. Charlotte says that the young woman looks like a gang member. Schmidt, who just before this complaint has been telling his daughter how wonderful she looks so Charlotte's comment is sudden and unrelated to the complaint, responds bitterly that her wedding will accept Jews and WASPs but no Puerto Ricans. The problem of course isn't that Carrie is Puerto Rican but that she doesn't have the rich, educated background which Charlotte is used to. The reason I say this is so insightful on Begley's part is the way it combines an almost unhinged anti-bigotry in Charlotte (she secretly tapes a conversation with her father to entrap him) with a total distaste for the lower classes. This novel was finished in 1996 but that mix of classism and anti-bigotry strikes me as a dead-on send-up of the northeastern upper/upper-middle classes.
The absorbing final section of Begley's "About Schmidt" is marred by some pedestrian plotting earlier on in the novel. Schmidt's wife has passed on during the process of retiring from law practice so much of the novel seems to involve him sleeping with women, including a 20-year-old Carrie, and planning his retirement finances. The power of Payne's coming-to-consciousness - in the film Schmidt gradually realizes he has been a disappointment to his wife and his daughter - is condensed by Begley into the concluding quarter of the novel and a bitter fight with his daughter, a fight who's motivations and realism remain obscure even after the novel is over. For that reason, I think Payne's re-telling of the story is more powerful and direct - but Begley thought of the idea and ends the story with power.
This book is quintessentially what I would classify as an excellent BB novel (BB for Baby Boomer just like you have YA novels for Young Adults...)
Certainly, one of the greatest compliments a reader can render a novelist is to buy another of the novelist's books. I report that I just ordered "Mistler's Exit", which the reviews on Amazon.com describe as a worthy sequel.
Still, I have one question: What is the incident between Schmidt and his sleeping wife supposed to mean?