Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Life After Betty: Elinor Lipman

Life After Betty:  Elinor Lipman

Brighton alert!  Most of Elinor Lipman’s heroines and heroes are perfectly comfortable in Brighton, though it’s much more the mid-priced B&Bs in quiet side streets than the garish, flashy, big hotels by the boardwalk, and they don’t describe their visits.  You’re welcome to blame them if you like, but since they are largely college-educated New Englanders in the 80s, 90s and 00s in long-term relationships that may or do lead to marriage, their fictional behavior is much more plausible than not – in real life, those folks are highly likely to make the trip.

And realistic is something Lipman does extremely well.  Her secondary characters are often colorful – a radio personality, an accused murderer, a delusional, aging dancer – but her heroes and heroines are more like the folks you probably know:  a medical intern, a hotel manager, a police officer, a temp/aspiring writer.  When the colorful carom into the not-so-much, the results are humor, self-discovery and romance.

Elinor Lipman’s first novel takes an ordinary woman, an ordinary man, a flamboyant birth mother and an unusual situation and gets emotional growth and happy-ever-after from the mix.

Her first full-length novel was Then She Found Me, which got turned into a movie with Bette Midler and Helen Hunt with only the vaguest similarity to the novel.  The book features April, a 30-something teacher, and Dwight, the 30-something librarian she’s always found dorky.  April has adjusted to the deaths, a few years before, of her adoptive parents, when suddenly her birth mother appears in her life.  Bernice is a glamorous, self-aggrandizing liar and demi-celebrity on local TV, and she desperately wants April’s acknowledgement, affection and respect.  Deflecting Bernice’s emotional assaults leads April to Dwight, and she gradually revises her opinion of him, resulting in as H an EA as real lives offer – which is to say, quite happy.

JFK’s birthplace – read the book...

 Dwight and April’s relationship is a revealing sub-plot in a story more deeply concerned with the conflicted, complicated relationship developing between Bernice and April.  The mother-daughter relationship is strained by April’s surprise, her loyalty to and love for the parents who reared her, and Bernice’s egotism and persistent dishonesty.  She’s no one’s idea of a Weeping Despot, but she certainly tries to ride roughshod over April’s lower-key character, demanding rather than earning a connection.  Our heroine and her sidekick don’t give in – often – and together they manage the emergence of a new family with care and humor.  Bernice has moments of sensitivity, but for the most part I find her a singularly unsympathetic character.  I am sometimes frustrated by April’s tolerance of her birth mother’s worst moments, but that frustration forces me to stop and think a bit more about why April puts up with Bernice’s emotional greed and flamboyant pushiness.

April and Dwight work at Quincy High School, just outside Boston, Mass.

The love story is really lovely.  I empathize deeply with these two people’s attraction to each other, and absolutely believe in April’s slowly-dawning awareness of that attraction.  “He stood up slowly, threw his balled-up lunch bag neatly across the room into the open barrel.  The grace of his set shot surprised me.  He smiled down at me and said, ‘Liar.’  I watched him collect the rest of his trash and reassemble the thermos; he took my coffee cup and swallowed the rest like a belt of scotch.  The huge Adam’s apple dipped; below it, his blue pinstripe shirt was unbuttoned at the neck.  A few chest hairs poked through a small hole in his T-shirt.  I felt a sudden pull in my gut for no reason.”

Lipman is a wonderful writer.  Her heroes and heroines are hugely likeable, and her prose is restrained, clear and vivid.  She is a member of the New England academic/artistic community, and knows that environment cold and describes it accurately and affectionately, without sentimentalizing (mostly).  All of her books touch that world to some degree, and if you like Then She Found Me, you’ll almost certainly enjoy The Inn at Lake Devine, The Way Men Act, The Dearly Departed, and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.  Secondary characters Isabel of Isabel’s Bed and the delusional dancer of My Latest Grievance are especially colorful, notably in their approaches to marriage and non-marriage, so if you’re Brighton-sensitive, approach cautiously.  Your library probably has many of these.

Caveats:  dialogue includes swearing, and the secondary characters have a much more cavalier attitude toward Brighton than heroes and heroines.  The book is set in the 80s (published in 1990), and Bernice smokes quite a bit – in restaurants, which on my 2012 re-read I found oddly disconcerting, though realistic.  Also, these characters eat a lot of Chinese food.

Salman Rushdie plays the ob/gyn in the movie version.  The novel does not have an ob/gyn character, since no one has need of one in the course of the story.  Further, the hero of the novel doesn’t appear in the film, and the unmarried heroine of the book is going through a divorce in the movie.  I haven’t seen the film, but it has both Bette Midler and Colin Firth.  Hmm.