The characters in Elinor Lipman's fiction may lurk on the outskirts of social misery or dally with the wrong guys in maladroit love affairs, but the author herself, seated in the sunny, cheerfully cluttered kitchen of her unpretentious neo-Victorian house on the outskirts of Northampton, Mass., exudes the quality that Warren Harding called "normalcy." Perky and outgoing, with a voice as clear as a crystal bell, Lipman verges on, may we say, borderline adorable. Add a wry, self-deprecating wit and the ability to recount an anecdote with the jaunty zest of a born raconteur, and Lipman may be close as you get to that oxymoron, an unneurotic writer.
Lipman's seven novels and one short story collection, variously described as "romantic comedy," "women's novels," or "sophisticated social comedies," have one thing in common: insights about human nature and social behavior as seen through the eyes of a compassionate observer of the human comedy. Her latest, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, out this month from Random House, could be her best yet, featuring a clueless heroine who falls for the quintessentially wrong guy. The cockeyed love affair between socially inept, work-obsessed Alice, a surgical intern in a Massachusetts hospital, and smarmy scoundrel and traveling fudge salesman Ray Russo, has the irresistible tug of inspired comedy underscored by the poignancy of a situation in which a lonely woman is struggling to find happiness.
"I think a good place to start a novel is to have a narrator with low self-esteem," Lipman says. "I like developing that character, and curing her." What distinguishes Lipman's work from frothy women's fiction, however, is that she never suggests that her heroine's future life will be perfect. She merely leaves each one blessed with the fundamentals of a good relationship that she'll have to navigate in a complicated world.
Asked how she herself would define her novels, Lipman at first demurs. "I'm called upon all the time to characterize them, but I'm not a student of my own work. Only like this—under duress," she adds, with a spurt of laughter. "I guess I would say, they are comedies of manners for intelligent adults."
She follows with a typically self-mocking anecdote about the time her son, Benjamin, then in seventh grade and reading one of her books for the first time, called it "romantic comedy for middle-aged women. No man would be caught dead reading this book," he announced.
He was wrong. Surely the New England Booksellers, who gave Lipman their 2001 fiction award, are not exclusively female. And judging by the comment of a black male bookstore shopper who hovered on the edge of her Q&A audience in Milwaukee, and then volunteered that he had shared the same experience as one of Lipman's heroines, the situations she describes are universal. "All kinds of people identify with the sense of being an outsider," she says.
Analyzing the construction of Lipman's novels, one may be struck by the repetition of paired, contrasting characters. There's often a repressed heroine and a self-confident, even flamboyant, female sidekick who acts as mentor to her benighted friend. In Alice Thrift, it's Sylvie Schwartz, lusty and spiky-haired third-year resident. And often, too, there's an unsuitable man who snares the heroine's affections, while the real man for her is hiding unobtrusively in plain sight. This time it's nurse Leo Frawley, part of an Irish-Catholic family of 13 siblings, and perhaps just as socially unsuitable as Ray Russo, but quite the right man for Alice, as she finally realizes.
Maybe it's the subtlety in which delicate social situations are resolved and true love reveals itself that motivates critics to compare Lipman to Jane Austen. She chortles at the comparison. "It's fabulous. I can hardly keep a straight face when I hear that," she says. She was once on a panel with Richard Russo, who found her response excessively modest. "Why don't you say, that hack!" he suggested. Her friend, writer Anthony Giardina, another resident of Northampton, had a better answer. "He thinks that in my work and in Austen the romantic hero is often the overlooked male," Lipman says.
Whatever the source of her emotional wisdom, Lipman's novels never begin with fully formed characters or with zany plots. Each time the impetus is situational. A news story that Ivana Trump would have a ghostwriter for her novel sparked Isabel's Bed (1995). The Inn at Lake Devine (1998) had its genesis in a letter Lipman's parents once received from a hotel owner in Vermont who stated that the guests who were most comfortable there were gentiles. Her mother's reference to a cousin who was abandoned by her fiancé at their engagement party led to The Ladies' Man (1999). Her husband's chance remark about a fly fishing store engendered The Dearly Departed (2002). For Alice Thrift, it was a fleeting moment in Penn Station when Lipman saw a train for Niagara Falls listed on the announcement board. "I couldn't believe that in this century you can get on a train and go from New York to Niagara Falls. I knew at that moment that I had my next book. I had the first sentence in my head: 'I should have known as soon as the brochure arrived that anyone who'd choose Niagara Falls for a honeymoon....' I knew that was the potential bride speaking. So I had to come up with an off-kilter boyfriend."
As the novel developed, that lead sentence got moved back to the second chapter, then discarded altogether. But Lipman knew she had the scaffolding for her story (and as an inside joke to herself, in one scene Ray Russo carries a Niagara Falls brochure in his pocket).
She had already been mulling over the idea of having an atypical doctor as her heroine, someone who chooses plastic surgery because she wants to treat scarred and facially handicapped children in the Third World. It had to be a surgeon so earnest that she actually believed that "beauty's only skin deep and vastly overrated," Lipman says. Readers will find that sentence in chapter one.
Lipman herself turns earnest in describing the reactions of otherwise adoring readers to what she calls "the rampant intermarriage in my books," especially the situation she describes in The Inn at Lake Devine, when the Jewish heroine marries the son of a frosty anti-Semite. Sometimes readers accost her "as though I'm socially irresponsible," she says. "But I write about the world as I see it. Intermarriage is a reflection of the world I live in." She says that her son once complained that he was the only one in his class who celebrated just Chanukah.
But she's quick to acknowledge that whatever her characters' backgrounds and religious affiliations, many of them carry an overlay of Jewish humor, behavior and mannerisms. She gives a cry of recognition at PW's observation that the Unitarian Thrift family, who rush to hire just the right caterer for a funeral and need to maintain an almost suffocating emotional bond with their daughter, had to be one generation removed from Jewish origins. "I'm busted, what can I say?" she confesses. Trying to create a non-Jewish family, she originally wrote the Thrifts as Episcopalians. Then Anita Shreve read one portion of the novel and called her to say that they didn't act like any Episcopalians she knew. So the Thrifts drifted into Unitarianism, but unwittingly retained the ethnic qualities that gave them away.
It's probably the deadpan humor characteristic of Jewish literature that's one of Lipman's defining qualities. Asked if humor is a family trait, she counters with a sotto voce aside: "Lipman averted her glance modestly," before admitting that she comes from a pretty witty bunch. Humor was important in her family. One was rewarded for saying funny things at the dinner table. Her mentor was her father, who loved good humorists, especially Ring Lardner and S.J. Perelman. "He gave me the sense that a book without humor was no book at all," Lipman says. Yet she's discovered that something she thinks is poignant often tickles readers' funny bones. "Sometimes discomfort makes us laugh, I guess. But I'm not consciously trying to make jokes. If I sense I'm making a joke per se, then out it goes."
While humor is essential to her fiction, fidelity to emotional, situational and background detail obsesses her. She's as workaholic as her heroine in double-checking PW to make sure the names she mentions while discussing her writing career are spelled correctly. She researches the situations in her books with equal zeal. She had a boost for this novel, however, because her husband, Bob Austin, is a radiologist, a natural source for background material. They started dating in his first year of medical school, married during his first month of internship. She vividly remembers living with a desperately sleep-deprived man and hearing stories about interns falling asleep while holding retractors during surgery, a nightmare situation that lands Alice Thrift on probation. She consulted a labor and delivery nurse (who happens to be Tony Giardina's wife) for information about a scene in which Alice proves to be a bona fide physician.
In fact, craft is very important to Lipman. Though she loves being told that her work is entertaining, she wishes that critics would mention the way she writes. "I take great pains with the writing," she says, tucking her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture. "I rewrite every sentence one hundred times. I keep chipping away at it. I'm always looking to avoid what Henry James called 'weak specifications.' " In other words, that breezy, natural, pitch-perfect style is fine-tuned by an expert.
It's that combination of inner discipline and warm, gregarious personality that undoubtedly have blessed Lipman's career. She's still best friends with Mameve Medwed, whom she met in an adult ed class in creative writing at Brandeis, and with whom she collaborated on her first effort, a collection of short stories. That book didn't sell, but it interested Stacy Schiff, then an editor at Viking, who asked her to write the additional stories that constitute her first book, Into Love and Out Again. Lipman followed Schiff to Pocket for The Way Men Act, and the friendship continued to flourish when Schiff left editing to write her own books. Today, Lipman mails Schiff every chapter as soon as she finishes it. Lipman is the godmother of Schiff's third child, and, through a serendipitous circumstance, she was the one who got to tell Schiff that she had won the 2000 Pulitzer for biography. Medwed is the other first reader who enjoys Lipman's confidence. Their loyalty is a two-way street. Lipman says, "I always tell people, if you like me, you'll love Mameve."
Lipman's relationship with all her editors—Jane Rosenman and Bill Grose at Pocket and Scribner, Deb Futter and now Lee Boudreaux at Random—has been exemplary. She says that she tells Marty Asher that being published in paperback by Vintage is "the Harvard sweatshirt I never got to wear." She's equally enthusiastic about her "fabulous" publicist, Brian McClendon.
She had only two agents in her career, "beloved" Elizabeth Grossman for 12 years before she moved to Oregon, and now Ginger Barber, "adored" by Lipman because she's "gracious, smart and a force to be reckoned with."
But perfection can make you nervous, right? So it's perhaps fitting that when asked about movie deals, Lipman pulls a long face. "Let me put it this way. My son was in first grade when Then She Found Me was optioned and then bought by Sigourney Weaver. He'll graduate from Columbia next year." Having scored zilch on movie deals, she professes "a sardonic and pessimistic view of me and Hollywood. I see every schmatte romantic comedy getting made. Alice Thrift is my seventh novel, and so far...." She gives a meaningful shrug.
Movie frustration aside, Lipman admits that every novelist should be so lucky. Blessed by ardent friendships with literary mentors and colleagues, and rosy relationships with agents and editors and publishers, she's not complaining. In fact, she says, quoting a hard-boiled industry insider, "the harder I work the luckier I get."