Elinor Lipman Redux

And now we return to the subject of my newest comfort author, Elinor Lipman! Acquiring comfort authors as an adult can be difficult because there’s such a vast universe of books to read, and I have the internet as an endless recommendation machine, whereas young Jenny often checked out the same book from the library over and over again until it became as familiar as a teddy bear. But Elinor Lipman’s books were like a teddy bear right away, so I was very excited to see two — a new novel and a collection of essays — pop up on Netgalley earlier this year. Essays first!

Essays: I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

The essays in this book are divided into essays on family, essays on writing, essays from a column at the Boston Globe that Lipman wrote regularly, and essays about life since losing her husband. Of these, I enjoyed the writing ones probably the most. The ones about her family were affectionate and touching, particularly the essay about losing her husband to a “rare, untreatable, and fatal” form of dementia. Though the essay — like all of the essays in the collection — was short, Lipman said a lot about what it’s like to see someone you love fall victim to dementia.

Anyway her essays about writing were the ones I enjoyed most unreservedly. It’s fun to hear about the process creative artists go through to make their [whatever — novel, play, production, movie, etc]. Lipman talks about naming characters, about how finding the right name can make a previously fuzzy character snap into focus.

In any carton of manuscripts entered in a competition I am judging, the strong, young, sympathetic, attractive protagonists tend to be named Kate. Runner-up is Anne, Annie, Anna: old-fashioned yet modern, feminine yet strong. Kates and Annas can ride horses, drink, and change tires, but will still look beautiful in their understated wedding dresses, freckled shoulders gleaming at their beach nuptials.

Heeheehee. NB two of my favorite people in the universe are called Kate and Anna. But, see? How Elinor Lipman is charming and funny when writing about writing?

The Boston Globe columns were much my least favorite, so I won’t say as much about them. “May I Recommend”, Lipman notes, was the reason she was eased out of the column-writing rotation, and while that was probably a disproportionate response, and although I understood that Lipman meant to talk about parenthood being the right decision for her, I could see why people got annoyed:

What if we’d been the husband and wife in my cautionary tale, a true one, about a childless couple who stuck to their guns? They spearheaded a support group called Nonparents Anonymous and were quoted in the Boston Globe decades ago describing the freedom, the spontaneity, the money saved, the creativity nurtured, blah blah blah. Today I know through mutual friends that they are divorced. But not just divorced: divorced and furious. The ex-wife claims he ruined her life with his nonparental nonsense. He says it’s her own damn fault. She left town, postmenopausal, never to be heard from again. He’s single, eligible, and searching for a wife of childbearing age.

When I got to the end of the essay collection, I felt that these were not essays that needed to be collected. Some of them were quite good, but they were all magazine pieces, if that makes sense. They were designed to amuse you as you page through the New York Times or whatever; they weren’t meant to be read one after another. Or maybe I am just biased against reading tons of short things by one author all in one gulp; cf., I never read short story collections ever.

And now on to the book I enjoyed v.v. much, Lipman’s new novel, The View from Penthouse B.

Recent widow Gwen-Laura has moved in with her younger sister Margot following Margot’s very public, very scandalous divorce. Though they live in a penthouse Margot owns outright, they’re both struggling financially following the loss of their husbands to death and prison. To make ends meet, they take in a boarder called Anthony, who makes them cupcakes and gossips with them about their love lives and money-making potential. Margot’s ex gets out of prison and moves into the apartment downstairs from their penthouse, and Gwen contemplates starting a dating service for people who don’t necessarily want to have sex.

Of Lipman’s books, this is probably the one that’s the most like The Family Man, although The Family Man remains my favorite if only by virtue of being the first delightful Lipman surprise in my life. Anthony is a Thalia-like force in Gwen-Laura’s life, and Margot is the inevitable (I don’t mean that in a nasty way, I again emphasize that I love lovely Elinor Lipman) Elinor Lipman character who’s wacky and impractical and sort of annoying and flaky at times and sometimes the protagonists want them out of their lives but they are basically good-hearted.

Like The Family Man, The View from Penthouse B is about a group of people whose lives have room to get better, and do get better. They experience missteps and unhappiness along the way, and the futures they build for themselves are far from perfect. Although they have all been hurt by people they loved, they only improve their lots by being open to other people again. And because it is Elinor Lipman, that openness pays off in happiness dividends as the book goes on.

I basically have no complaints here. I want to reread some of Elinor Lipman’s backlist now. I shall read The Inn at Lake Devine because that one was especially lovely.

Note: I received these e-books from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Elinor Lipman: The Continuing Saga

I have read all but one of the available Elinor Lipman books following my great success with The Family Man. And I am now pleased to report that Elinor Lipman has gone on my Favored Authors list. She is the kind of author you want to have on your shelves for when you wake up at night with terrible nightmares (or even just fretful stress dreams), or when you need an undemanding book to read ten pages of while you’re brushing your teeth at night.

Not all of these books share the feature of The Family Man that the good characters have nice things happen to them, and the bad characters get their comeuppance. However, they do all share the feature that the thrust of the plot is away from isolation and sadness, and towards contentment and love. That is an awesome feature for a book to have, and I am saying that as a girl who loves the sort of ending like The Secret History has, where it’s utterly grim and also a little ambiguous and strange. I love that sort of ending! But there are times in my life when I like to feel that the world trades in happy endings as well as sad ones.

Another good quality of Elinor Lipman is her gift with titles. She is not Tennessee Williams, but the woman has some solid titles. The Dearly Departed is a good title in general and a perfect title for the book, in that it captures both the sadness and the wry bewilderment the two main characters feel about their dead parents. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is good because that name is perfect for that character, and because it’s a fussily articulated title to go with its fussily articulate protagonist. And! My favorite of the titles! My Latest Grievance. That is an awesome title. I was telling my mother I would make that the title of my memoir if I wrote a memoir. Since I am not going to write a memoir, I’m going to start a series of blog posts called My Latest Grievance, in which I complain about petty things that bother me, like the preponderance of mopey ballads in this year’s Eurovision line-up, and people who just stand there on the subway escalator so that you’re trapped behind them watching your train leave without you because these damn people wouldn’t follow the damn rules and just walk down the damn escalator.

Litlove (Litlove, if I haven’t said it lately, I think you’re great) very rightly says that Elinor Lipman belongs in the intelligent comfort read category, the same category in which I would place someone like Marisa de los Santos. If I tried to describe the plots of any of her books, they would sound predictable, and well, they are in a way, I guess (you know the anti-Semitic lady in The Inn at Lake Devine is going to get called on her bullshit), but they are such a joy to read that it doesn’t matter.

That’s my pitch in brief, I guess: Elinor Lipman is a joy. When I have books of hers in my library bag, I have to exercise great restraint in not pouncing upon them and gobbling them all up. I delay gratification, an activity I enjoy, and it feels like such a treat to finally get to read the books. Her backlist couldn’t be big enough to please me, but I’m delighted that she is still young, shares Oscar Wilde’s birthday, and puts out a new book every couple of years. Elinor Lipman! Make your life happier by reading her books!

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!