One way to read Lore Segal‘s new darkly comic novel Half the Kingdom, which will be published tomorrow by Brooklyn publisher Melville House, is as a commentary on Psalm 71 verse 9, “Do not cast me off in old age;/when my strength fails, do not forsake me!” In my New York Journal of Books review I describe the novel as an “unflinching look at the frustrations and indignities that accompany old age and at the relationships between the elderly and their adult children.”
Ms. Segal, who is 85, uses a fictional investigation into a dementia epidemic that breaks out in a local Manhattan hospital as a way to link together character sketches of the various elderly characters who include both undercover investigators and patients (at least half the characters are Jewish New Yorkers).
Not all the scenes take place in the hospital. An early chapter portrays a lunch date between Jack and Hope, an elderly couple who “had lived together, before marrying two other people. Jack subsequently divorced his wife who had subsequently died. Hope was widowed.” They choose Café Provence because its bathroom is on the same floor as the dining area and they both have mobility issues.
Their conversation begins with Jack offering an agenda: that they share their resolutions. They also reminisce about a trip to France they took together five or six decades ago when they were still a couple. Afterward their respective adult children, Jeremy and Nora, come to pick them up.
Before leaving Hope looked in the bathroom mirror and “stood gazing at the crone with the gray, girlishly loosened locks around her shoulders and saw what Diane Arbus might have seen and was appalled, and being appalled pricked her interest right up: ‘I’ve got an agenda: The Diane Arbus Factor of old age,’ Hope looked forward to saying to Jack the next time it would be convenient for Jeremy and Nora to arrange lunch for them at the Café Provence.”
Hope’s reaction to seeing her image in the mirror and the mental sharpness with which that reaction generated a new idea is an example of Ms. Segal’s pre-dementia elderly characters. The portrayals of the afflicted patients call to mind the second half of the verse from the psalm with which this article opened.
My NYJB review concludes by assigning Half the Kingdom as “required reading for everyone hoping to reach his or her life expectancy and for the adult children of people who have already reached that age.”
Tomorrow evening, October 1, 2013 at 7:00 PM, Harper’s Magazine editor James Marcus will interview Ms. Segal at Housing Works Bookstore Café, 126 Crosby Street in Manhattan’s SOHO neighborhood.