Reading Elinor Lipman is like sitting down over coffee with your favorite friend, and fans now have the pleasure of enjoying two books from this delightful writer: a comic novel and a collection of short essays that are reliably smart and witty, but never nasty. Indeed, Lipman confesses ruefully in a piece entitled “Good Grudgekeeping” that the adjective “nice”follows her wherever she goes. Although she claims that she “very much enjoys holding on to a good grudge,” her short list of offenses that prompt hard feelings is entirely understandable: Who wouldn’t be outraged by the acquaintance who mocks your son’s chances of getting into Columbia? (P.S.: He did.) And she closes by admitting, “My shallower grievances dissolve immediately upon contact with a sincere ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
I’m not sorry to report that Lipman apparently can’t help but be nice. Her good nature twinkles on virtually every page of “I Can’t Complain,” a collection garnered from pieces written for magazines, Web sites and newspapers (including The Washington Post). As readers of her fiction know, Lipman is unfailingly funny, and comic flashes illuminate even her saddest essays. “I Still Think, Call Her,” a moving chronicle of her mother’s final years, includes several amusing examples of Mom’s sharp tongue. (Her response to Lipman’s idea for a new book: “It’s good, but do you think it’s enough for a whole novel?”) In a lovely tribute to her husband, who died with dementia, the author is not in a joking mood, but she appropriates journalist Thomas Friedman’s tender wisecrack about a loved one who “put the mensch in dementia.” It feels right that she slips in a laugh. It’s no news to those familiar with her novels that Lipman portrays our most painful emotions coexisting with the humor that makes them bearable.
The book closes with “A Fine Nomance,” which smoothly points toward Lipman’s latest novel, “The View From Penthouse B,” as she compares her fictional narrator’s attitude toward middle-aged dating with her own in real life. (This preview is probably not accidental; the brisk, unpretentious essays grouped under “On Writing” reveal a savvy professional cognizant of the work required to promote a novel in the marketplace.) Lipman is content with a platonic relationship, she avers, and she directs the collection’s only overtly irritable comments at “judgmental and outspoken” girlfriends dismayed that this “nomance” has not “advanced to a stage requiring new undergarments.”
As “The View From Penthouse B” opens, Gwen Schmidt isn’t shopping for lingerie, either. The story begins with a characteristic Lipman set-up equally rooted in hilarity and disaster. It’s not funny that Gwen is still grieving two years after her husband’s death, but the reasons for her sister Margot’s divorce are sublimely bizarre: Her husband, Charles, a gynecologist specializing in infertility, was found to be inseminating a few patients the old-fashioned way. He was convicted of fraud and sent to jail. Margot divorced him and received a huge settlement, but invested it with Bernard Madoff, which is why Gwen has moved in to share the costs of Margot’s swanky Greenwich Village co-op.
We feel free to laugh at Margot’s trials because she’s considerably more robust than her morose sister; she devotes her time to blogging furiously about her swindler and finding free amusements in upscale Manhattan. Since the blog makes no money and financial prospects are dim for Gwen’s “Chaste Dates” service for apprehensive singles, the sisters take an additional roommate: Anthony, a former employee of now-defunct Lehman Brothers who arrives with homemade cupcakes.
Other complications cleverly rooted in contemporary manners arrive with visits from Anthony’s sister, a nanny having an affair with her charges’ father, and from Chaz, — “with a Z,” he lets us know — the product of one of Charles’s sperm donations who is now aiming for a career in hat design. Oh, and Charles is released from jail early, moves into a ground-floor studio in Margot’s building, and sets about trying to ingratiate himself with his ex-wife.
It’s all wonderful fun. Lipman sketches her characters’ foibles with amused affection and moves the plot forward with practiced ease. Gwen nervously begins to date, while Margot finds she’s not as mad at Charles as she thought she was. Perhaps Lipman draws our attention a few too many times to Gwen’s growing confidence and assertiveness, but she traces with finesse the arc of Charles’s transformation into a (slightly) better person.
The heart of her story is a touching portrait of sisterly devotion. Extravagant, excessive Margot and quiet Gwen couldn’t be more different. They bluntly decry each other’s mistakes, but they are fiercely loyal and protective. It’s giving nothing away to say that both sisters get the happy ending they deserve because Lipman’s fiction always honors an implicit contract to provide reader satisfaction. Remember what you learned from the essays: She’s nice.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books frequently for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Ron Charles is on vacation.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Elinor Lipman will be at Politics & Prose. Call 202-364-1919 for information.
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 161 pp. $20
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 252 pp. $25