FIN & LADY, by Cathleen Schine. Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 273 pp., $26.
Cathleen Schine's enchanting new novel is about an orphaned brother and sister who form a small but sturdy family. But the real star of "Fin & Lady" is that romantic time and place, Greenwich Village in the 1960s, where the sounds of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie waft from the windows, and if you're a kid you can study Bob Dylan liner notes for language arts class, diagrammed sentences be damned. You can even go to school barefoot, if you're lucky.
Fin is nobody's definition of lucky; by age 11, his "funeral suit was a year old, worn three times, already too small." Having lost his parents and his grandparents, he comes to New York City to live with Lady, his wild, unpredictable older half-sister.
Lady does not seem capable of taking care of herself, much less a sad little brother (an apparently hefty inheritance leaves them without financial worries, a neat trick that puts the story in an
almost-but-not-quite fairy-tale realm). Up until now, Lady's presence in Fin's life has been minimal; he met her for the first time when he was 5. She remains something of a mystery, although she confides to Fin that she plans to marry in a year, and would he help pick out the best suitor? She's got three lined up but seems partial to none. One of them tells Fin bitterly: "You're the kid she never has to have."
Author of "The Three Weissmans of Westport," Schine is a wonderful storyteller with a sensational ability to marry the comic with the bittersweet, and she is adept at re-creating tricky family dynamics spoken and unspoken.
Her 1960s Village is funky, soulful and magical. Even when terrible historic events occur, they seem to be happening far from this hallowed ground. "The riots in Harlem that summer were in the newspaper, too, and Fin read about them, but Harlem was so far away from Charles Street it might as well have been in Mississippi."
Reality, though, eventually finds a way to intrude, as the Vietnam War spreads, protests mount and Fin enters adolescence. "Robert Kennedy was dead. The world was coming apart," he thinks. Then his world really does come apart. But Fin turns out to be lucky, after all. Lucky enough, at least, to pass on what Schine's smart, entertaining novels illustrate so well: the power of a good story.