cover image The Ladies' Man

The Ladies' Man

Elinor Lipman. Random House (NY), $23.95 (260pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45694-0

The Dobbin sisters are not the Bennetts, and Harvey Nash is no Mr. Darcy, but Lipman's latest novel is Pride and Prejudice as it plays out in the bicoastal, aging-boomer '90s. The protagonists--three red-haired siblings and the man who dumped one of them at her 1967 engagement party--are all in their 40s and 50s. Almost chaste and largely celibate, the Dobbins live together spinsterishly in a Boston suburb, until the womanizing cad who now calls himself Nash Harvey flies in from L.A. ""on a mission... to apologize."" Unforgiving Adele, the oldest and the one he dumped, works stoically in public TV--in marked contrast to Harvey's precarious livelihood writing commercial jingles. Difficult middle sister Lois, divorced from a cross-dressing patent attorney, for decades has believed--mistakenly--that the smoothly smarmy Harvey left town because of his feelings for her. She welcomes him back with barely concealed lust. The youngest, Kathleen, reacts angrily to his predatory insinuations, breaking a casserole dish on his head and inadvertently turning Nash into an unwelcome houseguest. Paths cross in sitcom fashion, especially since Cynthia John, Harvey's pickup on the red-eye from L.A., lives in the building that houses Kathleen's lingerie shop. The situation is provocative and promising, and at first Lipman seems poised to deliver a semiwhimsical search for identity la Ann Tyler. She exhibits a gimlet eye for the nuances of social interaction and for the rituals of courtship both East and West Coast style, and as usual, her view of the battle of the sexes is frank and refreshing. But the narrative soon begins to read like the outline of a screenplay. Done in shots and heavy on (admittedly snappy) dialogue, it sacrifices depth of character and story for glib entertainment. Though certain scenes (Adele's perfunctory deflowering; the car crash in which Harvey's ex meets a New York playwright on the make) are witty and engaging, too many other encounters (Harvey's sojourn in the Dobbins' apartment; a cocktail party/jingle recital) are dictated less by credibility than by the need to be cute. It's satisfying that while Harvey faces his comeuppance and a palimony suit, the Dobbin sisters finally confront love and commitment. In the end, however, this book is more superficial than we have come to expect of Lipman's fiction. BOMC selection; film rights to Paramount. (June) FYI: The Inn at Lake Devine will be released in trade paperback by Vintage in May.