Fin & Lady, by Cathleen Schine, Corsair, RRP£17.99/Sarah Crichton, Books RRP$26, 288 pages

The opening sentence of Cathleen Schine’s engaging and moving novel offers a mini-masterclass in how to swiftly command a reader’s attention. “Fin’s funeral suit was a year old, worn three times, already too small.” That’s a great deal of information packed into half the length of a tweet. “Fin” could be a boy or a girl, but the suit indicates the former – as well as membership of a formal society. We know his life has been blighted by tragedy; we know he’s young enough to still be growing. Hooked? I was.

Fin is Fin Hadley. His name came in a flash of inspiration to his gruff father at the end of Les Enfants du Paradis, which the boy’s mother was watching in the hospital where he was born: “FIN.” But by 1964, when this novel begins, Fin is 11 and his father is dead – and when his mother dies too he is left in the care of his older half-sister, Lady, a wild child if ever there was one.

Like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, this is a novel of a lost boy in a world of difficult adults. Lady jilted her fiancé at the altar when she was 18, drives a turquoise convertible and is perhaps the least suitable person you could imagine to act as guardian for an 11-year-old boy. Fin leaves home in Connecticut for the big house on Charles Street, in New York’s Greenwich Village, that Lady has bought – money isn’t the problem.

Lady has a Holly Golightly charm that is both magnetic and unsettling. “She was so vivid. Everything about her. Her dress was inches shorter than any dress he’d ever seen …When she smiled, her head tilted back and her teeth emerged, white and straight except for one.” Schine – whose novels are not as well known in Britain as they are in her native US – has a fine eye for the crooked tooth as telling detail. This elegant novel is full of these pleasing little touches; a set-up which could feel artificial comes alive through her acute observations of both people and places.

Fin isn’t the novel’s narrator. We soon discover that the story is being told at one remove, Nathan Zuckerman style; it would be giving far too much away to reveal that narrator’s identity. There are echoes of The Odyssey as Lady (yes, that’s her real name – their father’s foible seems to have been a weakness for peculiar names) keeps a group of eager suitors at bay with Fin’s help; but then the whole novel is shot through with literary references, some oblique and some direct. Fin’s best friend in the city is called Phoebe, a glance at Phoebe Caulfield, Holden’s sister. Books provide a better education than their crazily progressive, Steiner-style school: “He was reading Manchild in the Promised Land, occasionally taking time off to read Treasure Island. He found them oddly similar. A boy in a world of selfish, crazy, violent, colourful adults.”

At first this seems like a slight novel, a diversion. But as the Sixties swing on, Fin gets older, more questioning; the Vietnam war casts its shadow over all and Lady’s shining surface begins to show real cracks. The end is shocking, but beautifully planned and paced. Fin & Lady is a little gem.

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