Book World: Carolyn See's Review of 'The Family Man' by Elinor Lipman

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 8, 2009


By Elinor Lipman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 305 pp. $25

Imet Elinor Lipman some years ago at a three-day writers' conference in Fort Worth. About six of us were entertained lavishly and given keys to the city. Lipman was fresh, radiant, dewy, and the editor of the local book review section developed a tremendous crush on her. After the introductory dinner he took us dancing at a private club, but he danced only with her. A "great" novelist was one of our party, and Lipman even coaxed the ghost of a smile from him.

I've been thinking about the Eleanor Lipman Effect. She uses it both in her approach to life and in her fiction. It must be shaped like an infinity sign, an effect that loops back on itself. If you give someone your undivided attention and are delighted by what you see, the person observed -- like the smitten editor or even the "great" author -- can't help but reflect that delight back at you, which in turn makes you more delighted, and delightful.

For the first time, Lipman sets her novel in New York. As always, she uses a group of decent people on the ragged edge of forlorn at the beginning of her story, but all of them are hopeful about what life will see fit to give them. Henry Archer is an attorney who has retired early so he can enjoy the rest of what he expects will be a relatively short life. (His dad died young from a heart attack.) He is gay but was married briefly to Denise. Now his ex-wife's third husband has died. Henry doesn't attend the funeral, but he does send a condolence note. She, in turn, tells him that her wretched dead husband has two thuggish sons from his first marriage who are taking advantage of a 25-year-old prenup agreement to steal her apartment and all her money. This crisis puts Henry back in touch with Thalia, Denise's daughter from yet another marriage. Thalia, now an aspiring actress, was once Henry's beloved stepdaughter, and he's happy to let her move into the maisonette of his townhouse.

Denise, who can't stop blabbing and moaning and complaining, notices, through her tirades and laments, that Henry is living as a lonely bachelor. Determined to fix him up, she introduces him to Todd, who works in "table tops" at a store called Gracious Home. Henry and Todd fall in love, and Thalia turns out to be crazy about Todd, and he returns the compliment. The plot thickens a little more when Thalia gets an acting gig pretending to be the love interest of Leif Dumont, who's starred in many horror films but longs to become a serious leading man. But Thalia has a lot of other boyfriends. And Todd has yet to come out to his mom. And Leif's looks leave a lot to be desired. And the appalling Denise is about to be evicted by those two thuggish sons . . .

Just because something is "light" doesn't mean it's not masterful. Lipman's use of dialogue, for instance, is exquisite. There's no way I can explain to you how "This guy, this Leif, looks like death warmed over. He's old and bald. Or maybe he's not bald. Or old. Maybe it's shaved" is utterly perfect in the context of the novel. Though I read this book twice, I see that I stopped taking notes both times halfway through. Lipman mesmerized me. She hypnotized me. I admit it freely: I fell victim to the Elinor Lipman Effect.

See can be reached at

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