I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays

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Overview


“Lipman is always in top form as an essayist.” – New York Times Book Review

In her two decades of writing, Elinor Lipman has populated her fictional universe with characters so utterly real that we feel like they’re old friends. Now she shares an even more intimate world with us—her own—in essays that offer a candid, charming take on modern life. Looking back and forging ahead, she considers the subjects that matter most: childhood and ...

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Overview


“Lipman is always in top form as an essayist.” – New York Times Book Review

In her two decades of writing, Elinor Lipman has populated her fictional universe with characters so utterly real that we feel like they’re old friends. Now she shares an even more intimate world with us—her own—in essays that offer a candid, charming take on modern life. Looking back and forging ahead, she considers the subjects that matter most: childhood and condiments, long marriage and solo living, career and politics.

In these stories you’ll find the lighthearted as well as the serious and profound. Whether for Lipman’s longtime readers or those who love the essays of Nora Ephron or Anna Quindlen, I Can’t Complain is a diverting delight.

“Engaging and moving . . . Whether or not one is a Lipman fan before reading this collection, he or she most certainly will be by the time the final page is turned.” – Publishers Weekly

“Full of wit and charm, along with some trenchant observations.”– Seattle Times

“A feast of bite-sized morsels of humor and wisdom.” – Kirkus Reviews

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Dominique Browning
…essays on everything from motherhood to soap operas, from sex education to writing tips. Lipman's beloved son, Ben, and her equally well-loved husband, Bob…are prominent, and it's a treat to get to know them, even to hear their voices, and to feel her love…There's nothing too personal about a good essay, which achieves only an illusion of intimacy, a reaching toward universal connection, while much is left unsaid. Yes, Lipman is nice, sensitive, positive—and old-fashioned. She wears her heart on her sleeve. And, in the end, that has as much going for it in the way of profundity as anything a bitter, snarky postmodernist has to offer.
The Washington Post - Wendy Smith
…a collection of short essays that are reliably smart and witty, but never nasty…[Lipman's] good nature twinkles on virtually every page of I Can't Complain…As readers of her fiction know, Lipman is unfailingly funny, and comic flashes illuminate even her saddest essays.
Publishers Weekly
In charming and often self-deprecating fashion, novelist Lipman (The View from Penthouse B) has penned an engaging and moving series of essays about her life—some previously published in the Boston Globe (“Boy Meets Girl,” “I Want to Know”), others in Good Housekeeping (“Good Grudgekeeping”) and the New York Times (“Confessions of a Blurb Slut”). The most touching is Lipman’s tribute to her late husband, Bob Austin, in “This Is for You,” and the loving treatment of her son, Benjamin, in the same essay, lauding him for his help during his father’s last days. (Earlier in the collection, the laugh-filled “Sex Ed” provides a hysterical look at the author and her doctor husband trying to explain the reproductive process to their fifth-grader son.) “No Outline? Is That Any Way to Write a Novel?” offers a fascinating glimpse into Lipman’s creative process. Whether or not one is a Lipman fan before reading this collection, he or she most certainly will be by the time the final page is turned. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Lipman's acuity as a social observer makes her voice seem to belong to a wise and funny friend." —The Boston Globe
 

"More addictive than that bag of peanut M&M's… [Lipman] is always in top form as an essayist…Her essays celebrate an uncommon virtue: common decency. Lipman is eloquent and loving." —The New York Times Book Review
 

"Endearingly personal…The essays are full of wit and charm, along with some trenchant observations." —The Seattle Times
 
"[Lipman's] good nature twinkles on virtually every page of I Can't Complain…Lipman is unfailingly funny, and comic flashes illuminate even her saddest essays...Lipman portrays our most painful emotions coexisting with the humor that makes them bearable." —The Washington Post "Engaging…Good-natured confessions run throughout the pieces in I Can't Complain." —The Miami Herald

 "Funny, witty, gracious and knowing personal essays that make a reader want to have lunch with the author." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"The essays in I Can't Complain bring warmth and insight to topics ranging from soap operas to the death of [Lipman's] beloved husband." —Parade

"In each piece, no matter how brief, Lipman tackles the subject at hand with Dorothy Parker-esque wit and verve. The author's good-spirited openness and self-awareness shine through…A feast of bite-sized morsels of humor and wisdom." —Kirkus Reviews "As if readers are sitting down to sip a glass of wine with their best friend (if that best friend happened to be incredibly witty, intelligent, self-aware and encouraging-and also a bestselling author), this collection feels like the very best gabfest imaginable…Very highly recommended." —Book Reporter "Charming…Whether or not one is a Lipman fan before reading this collection, he or she most certainly will be by the time the final page is turned." —Publishers Weekly

Library Journal
This collection of essays, culled from previous publications, presents a lifetime of experiences. Starting with memories of her mother and father, Lipman, author of many popular novels (e.g., The Inn at Lake Devine), takes readers through her life using candid snapshots. She includes views of her husband ("I Married a Gourmet," "Monsieur Clean") and the upbringing of her son ("Sex Ed," "The Rosy Glow of the Backward Glance"). One of the most touching pieces deals with the death of her husband from brain disease. Along with providing family details, she discusses the marginalia of everyday life, such as invitation etiquette and Sex in the City, as well as her career. She is strongest when she shares about her son and when discussing the vagaries of being an author. Lipman is known for humor and satire; there are pieces that will make readers laugh and some that will elicit a tear or two. The book is best read in small doses. There are nuggets here that readers will surely want to share. VERDICT This is a crash course for aspiring authors (in the section "On Writing," among others) and a charming read for those who enjoy the essays and literary nonfiction of Nora Ephron or Anna Quindlen.—Linda White, Maplewood, MN
Kirkus Reviews
Accomplished novelist Lipman (Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus, 2012, etc.) exposes her journalistic roots by collecting over 30 "(all too) personal" essays and columns that have appeared in a number of periodicals. Dating back about 20 years, these mostly light pieces examine her family's foibles, the craft and business of writing, romance, and, somewhat surprisingly, given the rest of the volume's rather acerbic tone, moving reflections on her husband's tragic illness and the author's life after his death. In each piece, no matter how brief, Lipman tackles the subject at hand with Dorothy Parker–esque wit and verve. The author's good-spirited openness and self-awareness shine through in pieces on her childhood (she happily dishes about her mother's condiment-phobia), her willingness to hold grudges and the stages of her son's development. She also describes the peaks and valleys of decades living with a kind man whose tastes and "midlife fastidiousness," especially when it came to dress and household clutter, sometimes got the better of her. Particularly keen are Lipman's observations on writing, covering topics ranging from the naming of characters--"Nomenclature done right contributes to characterization"--to the authorial use of food as a "narrative helpmate" and a frank rumination on the politics of blurbing. Confessing her proclivity to promote the work of others, Lipman explains, "I am giving back. Critics have been described as people who go into the street after battle and shoot the wounded. No blurb can be a bulletproof vest, but in my own experience it can put a square inch of Kevlar over a worried writer's heart." A feast of bite-sized morsels of humor and wisdom.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780544227903
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 199,110
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Elinor Lipman

ELINOR LIPMAN is the author of ten novels, including The View from Penthouse B and The Inn at Lake Devine; one essay collection, I Can’t Complain; and Tweet Land of Liberty: Irreverent Rhymes from the Political Circus. She lives in Massachusetts and New York City.

Biography

Elinor Lipman began writing fiction in her late 20s, when she enrolled in a creative writing workshop. Since then, she has written a string of bestselling novels, as well as short stories and book reviews. Her books are more than just romantic comedies; Lipman writes entertaining characters who enlighten the plot with their human idiosyncrasies.

Her first release was a collection of short stories, titled Into Love and Out Again (1986). This charismatic collection of stories contains early elements of the thing that would make Lipman a loved novelist: finely drawn characters and page-turning plot twists. The theme of these sixteen stories is the stuff of modern domestic life -- marriage, pregnancy, weight gain and true love.

When Lipman released Then She Found Me (1990), Publisher's Weekly called the debut "...an enchanting tale of love in assorted forms ... a first novel full of charm, humor and unsentimental wisdom." When 36-year-old April Epner suffers the death of both of her adoptive parents, she seeks solace in her quiet, academic life as a Latin teacher in a Boston high school. Bernice Graverman is April's opposite. She's a brash, gossipy talk show host who lives her life with all the tranquility of a stampede. She's also April's birth mother. Lipman's story of their mother and child reunion is unforgettable.

In The Way Men Act (1993), Melinda LeBlanc returns home to Massachusetts to work in the family business. She finds a friend in neighboring shop owner, Libby, and has a one-sided love infatuation with Dennis Vaughan, another small town shop owner. Lipman takes on small town values by portraying the story's interracial relationship with wit and intelligence.

Filled with surprising friendships, Isabel's Bed (1995) tells the story of Harriet Mahoney, a writer at the end of her rope. When Harriet's long-term lover leaves unexpectedly, she moves from Manhattan to Cape Cod for an unusual writing assignment. Harriet has agreed to write the life story of tabloid darling Isabel Krug, a vivacious woman who earned her fifteen minutes of fame for her role as the other woman in a high-profile murder case. Their unusual partnership is the basis for this twisting, hilarious comedy of friendship and trust.

The Inn at Lake Devine (1998) is loosely based on a true story. The serious issue of anti-Semitism is treated with humor -- something Lipman is able to do so wonderfully in all her novels. When Natalie Marx's family is denied entry into the Inn at Lake Devine in Vermont, she plans revenge. But her plans are complicated by a friendship with Robin, fiancé to the son of the Inn's owners. Lipman's deft treatment of the play between discrimination and friendship creates a novel whose characters and setting may as well walk straight off the pages; and readers will find themselves laughing at the most serious of issues.

A committed spinster, Adele Dobbin is reunited with the man who left her at the altar thirty years earlier in The Ladies' Man (1999). Nash Harvey arrives, unannounced of course, on Adele's doorstep, and brings chaos into the lives of Adele and her sisters (also single, aging baby-boomers). In a rousing game of sexual politics, Nash unintentionally forces the sisters, particularly Adele, to examine their desires. Five distinct plot lines weave together seamlessly around Nash and his haphazard, womanizing lifestyle.

Sunny's homecoming in The Dearly Departed (2001) is equally life-altering. When her well-loved mother passes away, an entire small town mourns her departure. Back at the scene of her unhappy teenage years, Sunny dreads facing her former classmates, employers and so-called friends. What she finds is unsettling, but in a healthy way: the small town and its citizens are not nearly as malicious or clueless as she mythologized. Likewise, she realizes, neither was her mother. In a touching blend of social commentary, family drama and romantic impulses, Sunny learns that you can go home again.

The Pursuit of Alice Thrift (2003) is classic Lipman. Serious and shy, Alice aspires to be a philanthropic surgeon, using her skills for charity more than personal gain. That is, if she can make it through the rest of her medical internship. Alice is shaken (and confused) when she falls in love with an eccentric, foul-mouthed fudge salesman. But don't expect too much sentimentality here: Lipman gives away the ending in the first chapter, telling readers that the relationship was kaput, but the fun in reading this book is discovering why the two characters even glanced at each other in the first place. It's a great read -- Lipman places Alice on an unthinkable, yet totally believable path and we get to watch her find her way through.

Good To Know

In our interview with Lipman, she shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"I was nearly fired from my second job, which was writing press releases for Boston's public television station. I couldn't do anything right in the eyes of my newly promoted and therefore nervous boss. I quit after three months, one step ahead of the axe, feeling like an utter failure."

"Tom Hanks and his production company have optioned my fifth novel, The Ladies' Man. Robert Benton (Bonnie and Clyde, Kramer vs. Kramer, Nobody's Fool, Places in the Heart, Billy Bathgate, The Human Stain) is signed on as director and screenwriter."

"I was runner-up for the Best Actress award at Lowell High School in Lowell, Massachusetts, class of '68, after playing Gabrielle (the Bette Davis role) in The Petrified Forest and Elaine (the ingénue/niece) in Arsenic and Old Lace. And I was grievance chairman for the staff union when I worked for the Massachusetts Teachers Association in the late 1970s. Both of these inclinations come in handy to this day."

"I knit all the time."

"I wear a pedometer, aiming for five miles a day -- don't be too impressed; that includes walking around my house and food shopping. Sometimes I walk no farther than my own driveway because I can hear the phone ring -- 12 round-trips equals one mile."

"I cook quite seriously, which I think is an antidote to the writing -- i.e., I finish the project in an hour or two and get feedback immediately."

"I watch golf on television, although I don't golf -- except for visits to the driving range in spurts."

"I wake up at 6:00 a.m. no matter what time I go to bed."

"I was a roving guard on the Lowell Hebrew Community Center's girls' basketball team all through high school. My specialty was stealing the ball, but my only shot was a lay-up."

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    1. Hometown:
      Northampton, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 16, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lowell, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      A.B., Simmons College, 1972; Honorary Doctor of Letters, Simmons College, 2000

Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Elinor Lipman

By Heller McAlpin

I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Elinor Lipman recently to talk about the simultaneous publications of her tenth novel, The View from Penthouse B, and her first book of personal essays, I Can't Complain. I'm happy — though not surprised — to report that she's just as delightful in person as on the page. As Lipman notes in one of her essays, her "default setting is cheerful." Our conversation frequently veers from the literary to the personal, peppered with anecdotes for which she occasionally modulates her sweet voice to a brassier tone.

Touches of Lipman's upbeat personality and sense of humor are in evidence throughout her lovely midtown Manhattan apartment. She proudly points out the efficient, newly renovated kitchen accented with colorful tiles. In the powder room, there's a framed letter from the Japanese translator of her first book, Into Love and Out Again, seeking clarification from "Mr. Alinor Lipman" on several points, including, "What is B-school?" and "Sabie Hawkins: Is it a name of a dancehall?"

Lipman and her husband bought the apartment in 2004, thinking they would move into it full-time when he retired from his radiology practice in Springfield, Massachusetts. This was just a couple of years before he was diagnosed with the frontotemporal dementia that would kill him in 2009, at sixty, after thirty-four years of marriage. Lipman now spends most of her time in New York City, which she loves: "Given this phase of my life? I get to do things," she comments, citing a private party she attended in celebration of an auction of William Faulkner's manuscripts. Call them comedies of manners, call them screwball comedies, call them social commentary masquerading as gossip, Lipman's books — beginning with Into Love and Out Again, short stories published in 1987, and her first novel, Then She Found Me, in 1990 — are flat-out addictive. Smart, witty, stylish, snappy, brisk, zesty, sparkling, slyly mischievous, quirkily romantic, intelligent, heartwarming, acerbic, charming — these are some of the adjectives that have been applied to her fiction. But although her books are effervescent, they aren't all froth. Loneliness is a recurrent theme. Often, they're about finding love where you least expect it. The Inn at Lake Devine takes on anti-Semitism. Her new novel is set against a backdrop of recession and loss.

Her two latest books don't shy from widowhood or grief. Gwen- Laura Schmidt, the childless narrator of The View from Penthouse B, lost her husband suddenly in her late forties, and two years later, she's still balking at the thought of intimacy with another man. Her older sister, Margot, has divorced her husband, Charles — a fertility doctor serving time for fraud, having occasionally impregnated his patients the old-fashioned way and then charged them for the "treatments." Margot unfortunately invested the money from her divorce settlement with Bernie Madoff. To make ends meet, she takes in boarders in her Greenwich Village penthouse — including her grieving sister and a young gay financier out of work since Lehman Brothers tanked. Out of this setup, Lipman whips up a social comedy.

"If someone said, what is this book about, the first thing I would say is forgiveness. And then I would say, second chances," Lipman remarks. "I think it would be a good book for single women after divorce or widowhood. It's about second acts. And everyone, I think, unless they completely retire from dating life, everyone has their dating stories." Does she really believe that people can change—that Margot's ex-husband, Charles, for example, can be trusted again? "Well, I think he was no question a jerk, I do believe Charles did something awful, but he really does love Margot and she forgave him and she lets herself acknowledge that and feel that again, which takes a big person," she says carefully.

When I ask her what talking points she might suggest for reading groups, she says, "You know what flew into my head? Birth order! Three sisters. That flew into my head. I haven't given this one a second's thought. Birth order, because there was Margot, the bossy one. And then there was mild-mannered Gwen in the middle." The third sister, who suggests that her two older siblings move in together, is Betsy, a successful, bossy banker.

"I also think it would be fun to hear a discussion about lying," she adds. "Because Charles — well, poor Charles. Charles needed forgiveness from everybody." Another topic she likes: "It's always fun when people discuss the food in books." She points out that in Penthouse B, the impoverished sisters subsist on economical stews and cabbage soups and find comfort in their third roommate's fancy cupcakes. Paroled Charles's idea of hostess gifts are heavy on protein — whole hams and turkeys — while Margot plays on his guilt, insisting he wine and dine both sisters in expensive restaurants. Throughout the novel, the quality of dates is closely tied to the quality of cuisine, and one signal that an evening is going well is when Gwen and her date start exchanging tastes of each other's food.

I ask why so many of her narrators are insecure. "My narrators tend to be women with low self-esteem, so I can send them to charm school. And this time Gwen had live-in charm school with her older sister as her instructor." Pushed by her housemates, Gwen forces herself to attend a grief support group and a seminar called "Fine, I'll Go Online" — two activities Lipman skewers gleefully.

Fiction? She reminds me, "Every word in my essays is true," but her novels are fiction, and she's adamant about the difference. Lipman explains, "Although I refer to Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird as recommended reading when I teach, I do not believe nor do I preach what she says, which is, Go back to your own life, Go back to your own life! No! You have to make it up! You have to fictionalize and imagine! Otherwise there's the autobiographical first novel?and then there's the sophomore effort, which is not so good."

That said, the awful mix of self-aggrandizement and egregious spelling in the personal ads and online profiles Gwen reads are tweaks of actual posts Lipman came across during her research. As she explains in her essay "A Fine Nomance," "What's a verisimilitude-conscious author to do but join herself?" She signed up for Match.com, Jdate, and OkCupid. She says, "I trolled online from Match, and the epigraphs were personal statements that I changed. The ads came right from Craigslist, tortured grammar and all." But the scene in the novel in which an arrogant date calls for Gwen an hour early and berates her for not being ready wasn't her own: "My cousin had that experience and I asked her permission. The exact thing, the car, the sidewalk?she got out of the car? Oh, here's the difference! She got out of the car, she went home, the phone rang and she ended up agreeing to go to dinner with him because she was hungry and she liked the restaurant he picked! But I couldn't do that to Gwen." Instead, to the reader's deep satisfaction, Lipman has her narrator, on the road to self-assertion, jilt the jerk.

As for her own forays into dating, Lipman clearly isn't a timid moper like Gwen, but so far, her experiences have been richer in anecdotal material than in romance. In fact, as she writes in "A Fine Nomance," she became so fed up with the process that she was just about to cancel her Match.com account when she noticed that one of her daily matches listed "Elinor Lipman's The Family Man" as the last book he'd read. They hit it off and saw each other for months, but — to the frustration of the friends who make up her "pit crew" — it failed to progress beyond "insignificant other" and "friend without benefits." And what did she learn from the experience? That "the trouble with my pit crew is they want to be bridesmaids at my wedding." In other words, they're too invested in the outcome. And it's her own damn fault, she says, for telling them too much. "I've made it their vicarious business and given them their front-row seats," she writes. "Three years after Bob died, I've discovered this about myself: that I don't like too much attention."

Among the thirty-one essays in I Can't Complain is Lipman's tribute to her husband, which first appeared as a "Modern Love" column in The New York Times and is now retitled "This Is for You." I sobbed when I first read it in 2010, and I have to fight off tears again when Lipman describes speaking at his funeral, "the best funeral ever." But even here she lightens the mood by applying to her husband what Thomas Friedman said of his late mother: "She put the mensch in dementia."

Fiercely loyal to her friends, Lipman has slung barbs at critics who judge their books harshly. In an essay on writing, she discusses how she names characters: "Anyone remember that sexual predator in The Dearly Departed? He had the same last name as the critic who gave a dear friend an ugly review in The New York Times." In "Confessions of a Blurb Slut" she writes, "Critics have been described as people who go into the street after battle and shoot the wounded. No blurb can be a bulletproof vest, but in my own experience it can put a square inch of Kevlar over a worried writer's heart." She laughs when I cite this. I confess my disappointment with a novel she blurbed, which I reviewed critically. "I have new rules," she explains. "My policy — no compromises and no dutiful blurbs. A friend recently asked if I would read her manuscript and blurb it, and I won't tell you who it was, but I knew it would be kind of silly. And so I said that I'd lost friends when they said to me, 'I want your honest opinion. I don't want you to sugarcoat this.' You know I've broken people's hearts."

As for whether she reads reviews of her own books, she admits unabashedly, "I do look at reviews, because they are almost always good." Perhaps in reaction to her immodesty, she adds, "I was worried about the section called 'The Writing Life' that it would come across as too self-regarding, too smug, too immodest and self-aggrandizing? The truth is, I can't complain."

She has also worried about smugness creeping into essays about how glad she is that she and her husband changed their minds about having a child, and how well their "champion son" turned out. (Her book of essays is dedicated to Ben, now thirty-one.) Yet she was surprised at the ferocity of letters from what she calls "childless-by-choicers," noting, "It wasn't that long after that I was eased out of the rotation" on the "Coupling" columns at The Boston Globe

. Even her novels have drawn out the occasional crank. Some readers complained about the interfaith marriage in The Inn at Lake Devine, writing, "Don't you think you have the social responsibility for Jews to marry Jews?" At a temple book group she attended as a favor to the rabbi who did the graveside service and unveiling for her mother (who died in 1998), one member told her, "I have a fifteen-year-old daughter and I don't want her to read this book."

But most responses are positive. "My favorite compliment was when this woman came up to me in Milwaukee and as soon as the reading was over she sort of ran so she'd be first in line. And she said, 'I just have to tell you that my mother was dying, my mother had cancer, she was in a lot of pain and I brought her home, and I put her in a room right off the living room, and I gave her Isabel's Bed and I could hear her laughing from the other room.' And I said, 'That is the best compliment ever. I'll never forget it.' "

Lipman's work routine involves hitting her desk by 8 a.m. "Five hundred words a day is what I aim for," she says, explaining how she sends each chapter to her two close friends — her first editor, biographer Stacy Schiff, and novelist Mameve Medwed — "And I don't go on to the next chapter until I've polished and polished and polished the one I'm working on." She writes without an outline, but "there's a point in the novel where you know where you're going, and finally, I've learned to slow it down because every editor wanted a new penultimate chapter inserted because the ending came too fast."

As for her next novel, which she hopes to start after her book tour, "I have a premise in mind, and that's more than I usually have-about a daughter who makes some discoveries about her late mother that I'm sort of intrigued by."

Not surprisingly, Lipman is an avid reader, though she wishes she spent more time reading and less time e-mailing. "I consider reading part of my job," she says. "I love memoirs. I just finished A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss. I'm busy reading at the same time Patty Volk's new book, Shocked, and Jill McCorkle's new novel, Life After Life, which I love, and I just bought Meg Wolitzer's new book, The Interestings, and when I go up to Cambridge for my reading, I want Chris Castellani to sign his new book, All This Talk of Love, for me? One of my favorite books of the last couple of years that I just could not put down was Rafael Yglesias's A Happy Marriage, which is fiction close to fact."

Asked what she thinks is the attraction of her own novels, she answers, "An early editor characterized my books as 'romantic comedy for adults.' I think people see them as funny but kind. I don't set out to write either funny or kind, but it's a voice they like, quirky like me? And you know, people like happy endings. And my feeling is, if I'm the god of this world, why am I going to drown anyone's child?"

May 10, 3013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 30, 2013

    Highly recommend this book!

    I'm an Elinor Lipman fan, but even if you'd never read any of her novels, you'd enjoy this book. It is funny....poignant....I read it as a library book and instantly bought it for my personal library.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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