MY LATEST GRIEVANCE
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin. 256 pp. $24
Elinor Lipman is a far more serious novelist than she pretends to be or is allowed to be by reviewers. (I learned a long time ago that to be taken seriously you need to cut back on the funny lines. I once all but won the Booker Prize for a novel from which, on Kingsley Amis's advice, I had removed anything remotely mirthful. Alas, it was still "all but," so I reverted to my old ways.) Lipman, declining to learn this worldly wisdom, goes on making jokes and therefore tends to get described with adjectives that are good for sales but bad for literary reputations: "oddball," "hilarious," "over-the-top," "quirky," "beguiling" or, worst of all, "summer reading." The prose slips down too easily and pleasantly to allow her to rise into the literary top division, where the adjectives become "piercing," "important," "profound," "significant," "lyrical," "innovative" and so on. Dull, in fact.
But up there at the top is where this enchanting, infinitely witty yet serious, exceptionally intelligent, wholly original and Austen-like stylist belongs. Delicately, she travels the line where reality and fiction meet. Reality being more oddball, quirky and chaotic than fiction can ever be, Lipman inures us to the truth about the way we live by making it up as she goes along, cracking jokes and pretending it's all fiction.
This is Lipman's campus novel. (She wanders in and out of genres. The Dearly Departed was a mystery featuring dead bodies and policemen -- or "Summer reading at its best," as the Atlantic Monthly damned it. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift was her doctors-and-nurses novel, elegant and baneful.) Being a Lipman creation, the heroine of My Latest Grievance is no conventional academic but the precocious 16-year-old Frederica, child of two kindly, solemn professors, PC before their time. (The novel is set in the '70s.) Her father is the union grievance chairperson; her mother lectures on social stratification, murder and penology. Frederica's father turns out to have had a first wife, the egregious Laura Lee. Claiming stepmotherly status, Laura Lee appears out of nowhere to become a campus house mother, seduce the dean, nearly get the parson excommunicated, drive drunk and claim pregnancy, leaving Frederica to deal with the fall-out. Lipman takes this kind of thing for granted. So do I. Real life is fuller of outrage than fiction ever is.
See Frederica now, eating in the college canteen. Because her highly developed community spirit suggests that she always choose a seat next to the lonely and neglected, she sits next to the ostracized Laura Lee. Frederica's mother joins them: "My mother put her tray down next to mine. Her plate held only the evening's carrots, baked potato, and raw cauliflower florets from the salad bar. She looked her dowdiest, her gray hair bushing out from two mismatched barrettes of mine, her reading glasses dangling over a faded brown turtleneck, torn along one shoulder seam."
" 'Are you a vegetarian?' asked Laura Lee."
Laura Lee's subtext: Trust the ex-husband to choose a non-meat-eater for a second wife. And on the novel blithely goes. Lipman would not dream of belaboring a point, underlining a joke for our benefit. She side-swipes them, leaving a gap between her sentences, a jump in reasoning that both diverts and requires attention and leaves you laughing aloud.
Frederica is aggrieved. She has reason to be: She had no childhood; she has no home other than the college dorm; her diet since infancy has been the college canteen. "I wanted to be cool," she thinks. "I wanted my father to drive a car and wear a suit to work. I wanted my mother to read Vogue , color and straighten her gray hair, wear high heels, cut the crusts off sandwiches. I knew from television that families were supposed to live in houses, to sleep uninterrupted by fire drills or homesick freshmen, and eat by themselves in dining rooms that didn't seat a thousand." No such luck.
Frederica's fate is to end up in the college where she began, as vice chancellor in charge of administration of all things financial. Eventually, she creates the Laura Lee French prize, to be awarded to the student who most emulates that respected creature, now deceased. "When the winner is announced -- always a famously kooky but popular pain in the ass -- the crowd goes wild." It does not matter if I've told you how the book ends; the delights of the journey are everything. Elinor Lipman seems to find difficulty in taking herself seriously, but I think this is superstition -- the better to turn away the wrath of the Gods of Literature, who might strike her down in envy if she catches their eye. ·
Fay Weldon's 25th novel, "She May Not Leave," will be published in June.