Constance is an intriguing story of a young woman and her much older husband in 1960s Manhattan. Constance, the titular character, is haunted, aloof and intriguing; Sidney, her academic husband, is a divorced father of one who is still trying to find his niche.
The book is well written and draws you in; however, the fact both characters’ stories are told in the first person, with no real distinction in style between them, is a little unclear at first. While it is fascinating to read the points of view of both characters, I cannot help but wonder what would have been lost by telling it in third person, because it could have kept the limited narrative style while avoiding any confusion. The other thing that bothered me was the absence of inverted commas for speech, with dialogue indicated only by dashes. I’ve seen this a few times and it appears a modern way of doing it, but it does take some getting used to. But then again, maybe that’s just me.
The story is about two things – Constance’s need to work out where she fits, both in her husband’s life (littered with fellow academics, students, and the ex-wife and pre-pubescent son), and in that of her family, which consists of a father she resents and a significantly younger sister for whom she feels responsible. That her choices and actions can have a negative impact on her sister’s life seems to escape her; that she has any impact whatsoever on her father is also beyond her comprehension. For much of the story she is not only happy to but insistent on playing the victim, a fact which draws her wrath when her husband dares raise it with her.
Sidney, on the other hand, seems oblivious to the fact he is playing with fire when he feels an affinity and connection with Constance’s reviled father and occasionally takes his side against Constance’s. In this way he fits the stereotype of the absent-minded professor who knows everything there is to know about his chosen subject but nothing about human interactions or behaviour. He is able to offer clinical diagnoses of Constance, but seems unable to put these into a human context and deal with her in an appropriate manner; it is unsurprising that he succeeds only in driving her away.
Of course, this is a love story – or a romance, if you go with the definition that a love story has a sad ending and a romance a happy one – and our principal couple can find a way to connect in the end, even if they suffer many trials and tribulations on the way. In that sense it is masterfully told, because for much of the narrative it is hard for the reader to see any way out of this, yet when the story ends it feels like it could not have gone any other way. In another sense, though, the fact the characters are not particularly likeable and are far more frustrating than anything else means it is difficult to engage with the story. This was one I finished because I felt like I should, rather than having a need to know what happened next. From that perspective, it was not told masterfully at all.
Overall, Constance is the paradox of a brilliantly-written book which gives the impression it could have been better. It has all the ingredients of a great novel – deep and complicated characters, intriguing narrative, twists and turns, human suffering and resolution – but without more engaging characters, it seems to fall just short of its potential. I feel it could well become a classic in its own right; however, for an engaging read, I would be more likely to pick up something else.