At thirty-two, Faith Frankel has returned to her claustro-suburban hometown, where she writes institutional thank-you notes for her alma mater. It's a peaceful life, really, and surely with her recent purchase of a sweet bungalow on Turpentine Lane her life is finally on track. Never mind that her fiancé is off on a crowdfunded cross-country walk, too busy to return her texts (but not too busy to post photos of himself with a different woman in every state). And never mind her witless boss, or a mother who lives too close, or a philandering father who thinks he's Chagall.
When she finds some mysterious artifacts in the attic of her new home, she wonders whether anything in her life is as it seems. What good fortune, then, that Faith has found a friend in affable, collegial Nick Franconi, officemate par excellence . . .
Elinor Lipman may well have invented the screwball romantic comedy for our era, and here she is at her sharpest and best. On Turpentine Lane is funny, poignant, and a little bit outrageous.
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Eventually, Gwen is persuaded to try her luck at online dating, which has become its own form of slapstick and introduces all sorts of shenanigans and pratfalls. She slaves over her profile, taking care with the message her choice of photo will send: “a black sweater and pearls, with the suggestion of a smile and excellent work habits.” She’s not done with mourning, in spite of everyone’s insistence that it’s gone on long enough. On the subject of grief, Lipman is masterly; a set piece on a widows’ support group is a faceted jewel, occlusions and all.
The dating game is terrible. “I just met you.” “I know! And I like what I see.” “I meant take your hand off my leg.” Before too long, Gwen has had enough. Middle-aged dating is awful, as in real life, until it is not awful. “Who needs complications in an otherwise simple, happy life?” Gwen wonders. That’s our cue that life is about to get complicated — and even happier. Exactly as it ought to in this kind of novel.
“The View From Penthouse B” is as satisfying as a red velvet cupcake. For several slices of poundcake, pick up “I Can’t Complain,” essays on everything from motherhood to soap operas, from sex education to writing tips. Lipman’s beloved son, Ben, and her equally well-loved husband, Bob (who asked that she not write about him, but “of course, I wrote about nothing but him”) are prominent, and it’s a treat to get to know them, even to hear their voices, and to feel her love.
Most of these essays have been published elsewhere, but readers who don’t see The Boston Globe will get to catch up on Lipman’s columns on coupling from the older married woman’s point of view. “CNN reported last year that men simply have fewer feelings than women. That was enlightening news and applicable science. Why make husbands discuss and analyze and debrief feelings they aren’t endowed with?” There’s an appealingly retro, politically incorrect vibe at play here — a sweetness, an underappreciated sensibility. “In my case, 29 years times 365 days would have meant a lot of tedious pulse-taking and conversational detritus.”
Recently, Lipman gave Twitter world a daily bright spot in a dismal political season, tweeting a rhyme a day through the 2012 election cycle, a marathon of imaginative industriousness and acerbic hilariousness for which she cannot be applauded enough. So she would appreciate that as I read this collection, I was LOL and even FOTFL. She is always in top form as an essayist, despite having come to the genre late in life.
Her essays celebrate an uncommon virtue: common decency. Lipman is eloquent and loving about her childhood, growing up with good Irish neighbors who accepted the only Jewish family in their midst. In several essays, Lipman meditates on the large and small kindnesses that have shaped her outlook.
That doesn’t mean she’s missing a sharp edge. According to her father, she’s “a sensitive plant,” but while she admits that “nice follows me wherever I go,” she secretly loves holding on to a good grudge. She spins a lovely essay on the Yiddish expression trepsverter, “literally ‘step words,’ meaning the perfect retort that you don’t think of until you’re walking away and down the stairs.”
There’s even an essay, “A Fine Nomance,” about the aforementioned new novel, which does the nifty trick of sorting out autobiography from fiction, showing the reader what kinds of tricks writers have up their sleeves. And we can see her building up a fine grudge against the friends who can’t appreciate why chaste dates might be exactly what a newly widowed woman needs.
By far the most moving essay in this collection is “This Is for You,” about the death of Lipman’s husband after a debilitating illness, at the age of 60. This tribute to a long and happy companionship brought me to tears, and to a wrenching admiration for the casual luck and fierce determination that sustained her family.
There’s nothing too personal about a good essay, which achieves only an illusion of intimacy, a reaching toward universal connection, while much is left unsaid. Yes, Lipman is nice, sensitive, positive — and old-fashioned. She wears her heart on her sleeve. And, in the end, that has as much going for it in the way of profundity as anything a bitter, snarky postmodernist has to offer.
THE VIEW FROM PENTHOUSE B
By Elinor Lipman
252 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $25.
I CAN’T COMPLAIN
(All Too) Personal Essays
By Elinor Lipman
161 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $20.