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!