Review: The Family Man, Elinor Lipman

Well, this was an unexpected delight. I picked up The Family Man at the library on impulse because I was stuck between two other library browsers in the L section (one had kids and one was in a wheelchair so I felt rude demanding they move for me) and waiting for one of them to clear the aisle, and I thought I had heard Lipman’s name before, and my bag felt empty and sad. Elinor Lipman’s name sounded familiar, and Then She Found Me — which the jacket of The Family Man said Elinor Lipman had also written — sounded very very familiar.

The Family Man is about a gay lawyer called Henry Archer whose ex-wife Denise’s husband has just died. He takes the opportunity to reconnect with his former stepdaughter, Thalia, whom he adopted when he was married to Denise, then relinquished custody when Denise remarried. Thalia turns out to be highly delightful, and they start hanging out all the time, and Denise sets Henry up on dates, and Thalia agrees to be the pretend girlfriend of an unappealing movie star in an effort to make him more appealing. Sweet hilarity ensues.

I seriously wish I had live-bogged reading The Family Man. The jacket copy claimed that it was hilarious but jacket copies that claim books are hilarious are highly suspect. I suspected that it was the kind of hilarious like The Royal Tenenbaums, where people apparently find it funny?, but it just makes me feel sad and exhausted with humanity. When I started reading The Family Man as part of a Saturday afternoon book-sampling, I was deeply suspicious of everything. I was like, “Thalia just wants your money! Naive Henry!” I was like, “The person you’ve been set up on a date with is a con man! Run, run, escape while you can!” I was like “When are Henry and Denise going to steal money for drugs from her ex-husband and make everyone miserable?”

Answer: Never. Never! No one ever did any of that! The Family Man is actually truly a book about interesting people being nice to each other and enjoying each other’s company and helping each other out and being mutually amused by the silly situations life puts you in. The entire thrust of the plot (all the plots!) is movement from sadness and isolation to happiness and love. When I read this, I was in the middle of having a truly wretched few weeks (worse living through chemistry, I think, so I made some adjustments), and when I finally realized that nobody in The Family Man was going to screw anyone else over on purpose just to be a jerk, I thought how rarely merciful a book it was: Something from which you can derive pure pleasure, without its being boring or forced, and without feeling that you’ve had to switch off an inner critic in order to engage with it.

In short, not what I thought I wanted, but exactly what it turns out I needed. I’d like to give this book five stars because it made me five stars worth of happy, but I also recognize that I’m in an extreme mood place at the moment and it may be clouding my judgment. So four stars for now, and I shall go away and read Elinor Lipman’s other books and form a more reasoned opinion of her, and once I’ve done that I shall revisit my four stars v. five stars decision.

And now, please help me figure out what book I was mixing up with Then She Found Me. I believe it was a book originally and got turned into a movie, but in any case it’s probably the titles that were similar. I had an image in my head of something quite sad, with school lockers. Possibly someone had witnessed a crime or tragedy of some sort and wasn’t sure whether to talk about it? Definitely there were lockers, and someone not wanting to talk about something. And the main characters were girls or women. That is really vague but let’s face it, there are not that many movies with more than one main female character. Help. Help. It’s going to bug me.

They read it too: Unputdownables and Lesa’s Book Critiques. Let me know if I missed yours!

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26 thoughts on “Review: The Family Man, Elinor Lipman

  1. I’m sorry to hear that you are in an extreme mood place right now, and I can totally relate. It sounds like this book was gentle, and funny, and just what you needed at this point, so it’s like book kismet that you picked it up randomly and so enjoyed it. I need to read this one, apparently. This was a wonderful review, Jenny, and I will be looking for it.

    • It’s okay! I’m all sorted out now! I’m in a very nice mood place now, and still I find that I enjoy Elinor Lipman. So I think she’s going to take a place in my stable of favorite authors. 😀 Her books are good for any sort of mood!

  2. This book sounds so uplifting! I believe that books, like people, communicate moods; this is a book that I’d like to meet and be friends with. It is now on
    “the list.”

  3. I picked up this book shorty after it came out, having heard a lot of praise but knowing very little of it, and was surprised and delighted once I started to read. It is such an enjoyable story with truly nice characters. I loved it and am glad you did too!

    • Aw, yay, I’m glad to find another Elinor Lipman fan. Have you read any of her other books? I’ve read four others so far — I can’t stop myself from gobbling them up! — and although The Family Man is still my favorite, I’m really enjoying working my way through her backlist.

  4. Oh, wonderful! I love book kismet, as Zibilee the Wise says! I often think that there are some books that aren’t universally considered wonderful but somehow just GET TO US in a way that is not to be explained or understood. I feel that way about my first Georgette Heyer novel, the Anne of Green Gables series and the Dealing with Dragons series. Those were all read when I was younger. Hmm, I also felt that way about A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN, which you have still not read.

    • Yes! That is a thing that happens! It is one of those super awesome things about reading that are difficult to describe to people who don’t like to read!

      #shame I know I still haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One of these days, I swear.

  5. People find The Royal Tenenbaums hilarious? Like, for real?

    New thought: this sounds utterly wonderful! I totally need something utterly wonderful, where people hold one another up instead of screwing each other over, so I shall seek it out.

    • I don’t know, apparently. I found it depressing as hell.

      Yes, read this! It is just exactly holding one another up instead of screwing each other over, and you won’t even have to go through that period that I went through where you’re worried everyone will turn out mean.

  6. Aw, this sounds like such a great reading experience in the end. I love your story about how you ended up taking this book off the shelf. Yay, serendipity!

  7. Sounds wonderful! (You can sort of live-blog in goodreads with status updates. I always wonder if people are annoyed or enjoy my little updates with my reactions per what page, etc. But it really helps me to write my reviews.)

  8. Jen, I am so glad you wrote this review…I started the book with cheerful expectations, and, knowing,no vicious cruelty is going to occur, am just enjoying the pants off it. I may hunt down a few ore copies…I know some people that could really appreciate literary mercy.

  9. I really like Elinor Lipman who I discovered years and years ago now. I know she is not everyone’s cup of tea, and indeed some of her books are a bit more biting than others. But gentle too, so nipping, maybe, in a playful way, rather than biting. And oh how lovely it is when a book provides just the right sort of imaginative space to inhabit. It’s almost an act of grace.

    • You know, she seems like the kind of author you would like! I only wish I’d known about her sooner. I’m happy that she appears to be producing books at a fairly steady rate — it’s nice to have someone reliable whose books you can always look forward to.

  10. This book was under the tree for me at Christmas, and after reading your rave review I pulled it off the TBR shelf. Lovely, lovely book. What I felt was, wasn’t it wonderful to read well-written fluff? It’s really, really hard to pull off well-written fluff, but this was just delightfully light and frothy and hit the spot. I love Henry Archer, whose last name is the perfect hint of the pepper that spices the fluff. Arch humour is essential in romance plots. Thanks for the nudge to read it. (Hope you’ve found the title that’s on the tip of your tongue. I was hoping one of the commenters had figured it out…)

  11. I didn’t find The Royal Tenenbaums hilarious, either! In fact, I didn’t really enjoy it at all, which made me wonder if I was missing something because *everyone* around me LOVED it. Anyway. This book sounds wonderful! I think I need to read it. I’m so glad you got stuck in the Ls.

  12. I just finished this! And it was delightful and just what I needed. I kept expecting someone to do something awful, and I had to keep reminding myself, “Emily! Jenny said they don’t do anything awful to each other, remember??” So glad I read this. Is Elinor Lipman always like this? Because I think I may need to read everything else she’s ever written.

  13. Pingback: Elinor Lipman: The Continuing Saga « Jenny's Books

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