Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Jamaica Kincaid just wrote this novel or if she stars in it as well. You can hear echoes of her real life in See Now Then, which delves into the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Sweet, who live in Bennington, Vt., with their son and daughter, just as Kincaid and her husband did. After many years together, the Sweets are no longer so sweet to each other. Raising children, with little time for creative pursuits — he’s a composer, she’s a writer — has left them resentful. Mr. Sweet plans to leave his wife for a young musician, as Kincaid’s husband did.
But this isn’t just Kincaid’s story. And there’s nothing so personal here that it doesn’t feel allegorical, reminding us how epic every divorce feels to those involved. The Sweets’ children play with Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles, but they’re named Persephone and Heracles, after the Greek gods. The tension between Mr. Sweet and his son is downright oedipal, blurring the lines between reality and family mythology.
Inspired by the lovely, lyrical style of Gertrude Stein, who’s name-checked early in the novel, Kincaid captures the stuck rhythms of marriage as she repeatedly cycles back to the same fights. Mr. Sweet thinks, ”It was her presence in his life that kept him from being who he really was, who he really was, who he really was.” As a literary device, it’s affecting, but actually reading the words, again and again, can get tiring. By the time Mr. Sweet daydreams about a different life, one where he’s ”entitled to doormen and poor but princely and entitled to doormen and sad and…entitled to doormen, no matter what, there must be doormen,” you’ll feel entitled to doormen too. But only if you can find one who will lock this blowhard out of the house. B