Patrick McGrath’s talent for writing dark, psychological stories and for creeping out his readers holds a firm place in Gothic literature. Constance, his newest psychological tale, features the unstable Constance Schuyler, a New York girl who marries Sidney Klein, a professor 20 years her senior. Soon, Constance is suspicious of Sidney, believing his love is a sham; however, he convincingly projects a desire to protect his fragile wife. Sidney frequently encourages her to share her worries and concerns with him, especially regarding her hatred for her father. Daddy, always spelled with a capital “D,” lives in a massive, isolated old family house perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. He’s the reason Constance rages deep inside with paranoid resentment, which infects her interactions with the world.
It is the 1960s. Constance and Sidney live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The location lends a dark touch to the atmosphere because this is a time when the now gentrified location groaned with drunks, whores and drugs. Hovering over the city is the long, drawn out demolition of New York’s original Penn Station, a metaphor illustrating the city’s structural breakdown and a senseless destruction of beauty. It also visually represents the structural demise of Constance’s sense of self when the big Daddy reveals a dark family secret that validates why all her life Constance felt neglected by him, and why he worshiped her younger sister, Iris.
By giving us the viewpoints both of the paranoid Constance and the doting Sidney in alternating chapters, McGrath creates an uncertainty about Constance’s reality, and it effectively keeps us off-balance. But no matter how effectively McGrath’s style takes hold in Constance, the blame-it-on-a-parent theme lacks originality. Also, it feels more wearisome than inviting. Even the family secret lands with a bit of a thump, revealing poor decisions more than an unusual, shocking disclosure. And that isolated old house on the hill reeks of an easy prop.
Not all is lost, though. Suicides, love affairs and that famous Patrick McGrath creepiness sustain engagement, despite the eye-rolling daddy issues. Also, Iris, Constance’s sister, provides morally corrupt color when she moves to New York City and lives near the newlyweds. And Howard, Sidney’s young son who comes to Manhattan to live with him and Constance, injects a bright spot into the morbid heaviness.
Constance refuses to see a psychologist, and so Sydney remains her main connection to reality beyond her Daddy obsession. He hangs in there through her bizarre behavior because Howard needs a family, after the death of his mother. Even Constance realizes this, but how — and if — she’s going to rid herself of Daddy in her head and forget about that house on the hill is what haunts Sidney– and leaves us wondering — at the end of this elemental psychological tale.