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Author Biography: Elinor Lipman is the author of The Dearly Departed, The Ladies’ Man, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel’s Bed, The Way Men Act, Then She Found Me, and Into Love and Out Again. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, Gourmet, Salon, Self, More, and Yankee Magazine. She has taught writing at Simmons, Hampshire, and Smith colleges, and won the 2001 New England Book Award for fiction. She lives in Massachusetts.
“A witty, satirical novel rich in wry, observant narrative reminiscent of Jane Austen’s deceptively benign satiric genius.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“The most perfect piece of prose writing to come along in quite a while.” —Philadelphia Weekly
“The literary equivalent of lemon soufflé, light, tart and delicious.” —Detroit Free Press
Tell the Truth
You may have seen us in “Vows” in The New York Times: me, alone, smoking a cigarette and contemplating my crossed ankles, and a larger blurry shot of us, postceremony, ducking and squinting through a hail of birdseed. We didn’t have pretty faces or interesting demographics, but we had met and married in a manner that was right for SundayStyles: Ray Russo came to my department for a consultation. I said what I always said to a man seeking rhinoplasty: Your nose is noble, even majestic. It has character. It gives you character. Have you thought this through?
The Times had its facts right: We met as doctor and patient. I digitally enhanced him, capped his rugged, haunted face with a perfect nose and symmetrical, movie-star nostrils—and he didn’t like what he saw on the screen. “Why did I come?” he wondered aloud, in a manner that suggested depth. “Did I expect this would make me handsome?”
“It’s the way we’ve been socialized,” I said.
“It’s not like I have a deviated septum or anything. It’s not like my insurance is going to pick up the tab.”
Vanitas vanitatum: elective surgery, in other words.
He asked for my professional opinion. I said, “There’s no turning back once we do this, so take some time and think it over. There’s no rush. I don’t like to play God. I’m only an intern doing a rotation here.”
“But you must see a lot of noses in life, on the street, and you must have an artistic opinion,” said Ray.
“If it were I, I wouldn’t,” I said for reasons that had nothing todo with aesthetics and everything to do with the nauseating sound of bones cracking under mallets in the OR.
“Really? You think the one I have is okay?”
“May I ask why you want to do this now, Mr. Russo?” I asked, glancing at the chart that told me he’d turn forty in a month.
“Let’s be honest: Women like handsome men,” he said, voice wistful, eyes downcast.
What could I say except a polite “And you don’t think you’re handsome enough? Do you think women judge you by the dimensions of your nose?”
Next to me he smiled. The camera mounted above the monitor played it back. He had good teeth.
“I haven’t been very lucky in love,” he added. “I’m forty-five and I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“Is your date of birth wrong?” I asked, pointing to the clipboard.
“Oh, that,” he said. “I knock five years off when I’m filling out a job application because of age discrimination, even at forty-five. Bad habit. I forgot you should always tell the truth on medical forms.”
“And what is your field?”
“I’m in business, self-employed.”
I asked what field.
“Concessions. Which puts me before the public. Wouldn’t you think that if everything was okay in the looks department, I’d have met someone by now?”
I hated this part—the psychiatry, the talking. So instead of asserting what is hard to practice and even harder to preach in my chosen field—that beauty’s only skin deep and vastly overrated—I pecked at some keys and moved the mouse. We were back to Ray’s original face, bones jutting, cartilage flaring, nose upstaging, a face that my less scrupulous attending physicians would have loved to pin to their drawing boards. If it sounds as if I saw something there, some goodness, some quality of mercy or masculinity that overrode the physical, I didn’t. I was flattering him to serve my own principles, my own anti–plastic surgery animus. Ray Russo thought my silence meant I wouldn’t change a hair.
“Vows” would reconstruct our consultation, with Ray remembering, “I heard something in her voice. Not that there was a single unprofessional moment between us, but I had an inkling she may have been saying ‘No, don’t fix it’ in order to terminate our doctor-patient relationship and embark on a personal one.”
Reading between the lines, and knowing the outcome, you’d think something was ignited in that consultation, a spark between us, but I wasn’t one of those attractive doctors with a stethoscope draped around her shoulders and a red silk blouse under her lab coat. I was an unhappy intern, plain and no-nonsense at best, and hoping to perform only noble procedures once I’d finished my residency, my fellowship, my board certification—to reconstruct the soft tissue of poor people, to correct their birth defects, their cleft lips and palates, their cranial deformities, their burns, their mastectomies, to stitch up their torn flesh in emergency rooms so that no scar would force them to relive their horrible accidents. I’d hand off to my less idealistic and more affluent associates the nose jobs, the liposuctions, the face-lifts, the eye and tummy tucks, the breast augmentations, and all cosmetic procedures that make the marginally attractive beautiful.
Ray Russo should have consulted someone who would graduate from the program and set up a suite of sleek offices in a big city. I wished him well and sent him home with the four-color brochure that covers the gruesome steps of rhinoplasty.
Why did I take his phone call six months later? Because I didn’t remember him. He dropped the name of my chairman, which made me think he was a friend of that august family—as if he’d sensed I was worried about my standing in the department and my ambivalence toward my then chosen field. Of course, I am summarizing for narrative convenience. Why go into detail about our history, our motivation, our sweet moments, if I’m going to break your heart soon enough? I could add that I have a mother who worries about me, a mother whose motto is “Go for a cup of coffee. It doesn’t mean you have to marry him,” but I’m not blaming her. This is about the weak link in my own character—wishful thinking—and a husband of short duration with a history of bad deeds.
If I sound bitter, I apologize. “Vows” should revisit their brides and grooms a year later, or five or ten. I’d enjoy that on a Sunday morning—scanning the wedding announcements stenciled with updates: not speaking. divorced. separated. annulled. cheating on him with the pool-maintenance guy. gave birth 5 months later. in counseling. came out of the closet—any number of interesting developments that reveal the truth about brides and grooms. Ray’s and mine could have multiple stamps, like an expired passport. It could say didn’t last the honeymoon or should have known better. Or, across his conniving forehead, above that hideous nose, succinctly and aptly, liar.
Later Classified as Our First Date
Raymond Russo’s self-improvement campaign began with a stroke of Las Vegas luck: He won a free teeth-bleaching, upper and lower arches, in a dentist’s lottery. It explained his too-easy grin and his drinking coffee through a straw during what would later be classified as our first date. We were side by side, on stools at the Friendly’s in the lobby of my hospital. Conversation was stalled on my medical degree, which evoked something close to reverence, expressed in boyish, gee-whiz fashion, as if he’d never encountered such a miraculous career trajectory. Was it not flattering? Was I not psychologically pummeled every day? Insulted by evaluations that described my performance as workmanlike and my people skills as hypothermic? Was I not ready for someone, anyone, to utter words of admiration?
“I can’t be the only woman doctor you’ve ever met,” I said. “You must have gone to college with women who went on to medical school.”
“Believe it or not, I didn’t.”
“There are thousands of us,” I said. “Maybe millions. A third of my medical school class were women.”
“Well, keep it coming,” he said. “I know I was happy when you walked into the examining room. It helped me more than some guy saying, ‘Your nose is fine the way it is.’ I might have thought he wanted to keep me homely—you know—to reduce the competition.”
I hoped he was joking, but humor comprehension was never my strong suit. I asked, “Did I take measurements that day, or a history?”
Still smiling, he said, “You don’t remember me at all, do you?”
I said, “It’s coming back to me. Definitely.” Studying his nose in profile, I added, “I’m not a plastic surgeon. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Just the opposite! Thanks to you, I’m going to live with this nose of mine and see how it goes. I know a couple of guys who had nose jobs—I’m not saying they were done upstairs—but I think they look pretty fake.”
I stated for the record—should anyone more senior be listening—“We have some true artists in the department. You could come up and look at the before-and-after photos. They’re quite reassuring.”
He waved away the whole notion. “I could die on the table, and then what? My obituary would say ‘Died suddenly after no illness whatsoever’? ‘In pursuit of a more handsome face’? How would my old man feel? It’s his nose I inherited.”
“General anesthesia always carries a risk,” I said, “and of course there’s always swelling and ecchymoses, but I doubt whether the hospital has ever lost a rhinoplasty patient.”
He smiled again. He tapped the back of my hand and said, “You’re a serious one, aren’t you?”
I confirmed that I was and always would be: a serious infant, a serious child, a serious teenager, a serious student, a serious adult.
“Not the worst quality in a human being,” Ray allowed.
I said, “It would help me in all the arenas of my life if I were a touch more gregarious.”
“Highly overrated,” said Ray Russo. “Any doofus, any deejay or salesman, or waitress, can be gregarious, but they can’t do what you do.”
It sounded almost logical. He asked if a cup of coffee was enough for dinner. Didn’t I want to move to a booth and have a burger? Or to a place where we could share a carafe of wine?
1. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift opens with the announcement of a marriage and its ultimate failure. Does knowing the outcome spoil the narrative journey in any way?
2. Alice always expresses herself in literal and clinical terms. How does the author maintain a comedic tone while her narrator is, essentially, tactless and devoid of humor?
3.No one around Alice can understand what she sees in Ray Russo. How much of that universal disapproval is based on class differences? What facts did the author slip onto Ray’s figurative résumé to prejudice his case?
4. Reviewers have noted Elinor Lipman’s "fondness for inviting peripheral characters along with their numerous subplots and intrigues to have their say." Which characters in The Pursuit of Alice Thrift best exemplify this hallmark?
5. Could The Pursuit of Alice Thrift have been set anywhere, or is there something intrinsically Bostonian about the story and its characters?
6. The author has said that this novel is, first and foremost, "about friendship, and being rescued by it." Leo Frawley might be described as the novel’s nurturer, while Sylvie Schwartz functions as its tough guy. Do you think that the author set out to challenge the readers’ gender expectations, or was she simply trying to create original characters?
7. Except for her long hair and unfashionable clothes, Alice is never described physically. How do you picture her? Did she change in your mind’s eye as she grew more comfortable inside her own skin?
8. Dialogue is all-important in Elinor Lipman’s novels. Is its most important role that of advancing the plot, developing the characters, or entertaining the reader?
9. Should Ray Russo be described as the novel’s villain, or might he be, after all, Alice’s catalyst and crucible?
10. If you could see into their futures, what will Alice, Sylvie, and Leo be doing ten years from now?
11. Novelist Carol Shields, in her biography of Jane Austen, observed, "...(M)others are essential in her fiction. They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth." How does Mrs. Thrift fit the Austen model? And how much influence does Mrs. Frawley still exert over her full-grown, independent son?
12. Alice confides to Dr. Shaw’s companion, Jackie, "I’m confused by the fact that we had, to the best of my knowledge, in the vernacular, great sex." Why is she baffled? Is it purely her lack of experience, or is it back to the sociology of Ray and Alice--that by all other standards they would be judged incompatible?
13. In Shakespeare’s plays one can rely on comedies ending in marriage. The two weddings in The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, however, are not endings in any conventional sense. What purpose do they serve in the education and evolution of Alice?
Posted February 10, 2010
I have read this book three times now, and intend on reading it again. I found myself highlighting and underlining many clever, well written lines. Elinor Lipman struck gold with this book. It is a must-read for anyone looking for something a little less ordinary and something that will make you laugh. Definitely a masterpiece worth holding on to!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 2, 2010
I Also Recommend:
I liked The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. She is career driven so she doesn't develop her social skills very well. It is very easy to see how this could happen to a woman is real life. I liked Leo as well. The plot was interesting but I hated Ray. Can you say, Liar. I would read another Elinor Lipman novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 8, 2008
This is a simple story about a socially misfit young doctor who goes through very painful social experiences in finding her way. It is funny, well written, and the characters are well drawn.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 1, 2003
Posted June 25, 2003
Elinor Lipman writes so well, so smart, so funnily - if that is a word! - and makes these characters so real, you will have a mental picture of them by the middle of the book. (I had Sandra Bullock as Alice and a composite of Dennis Farina and Burt Reynolds as Ray). Thank you, Elinor Lipman, from my inner-Alice Thrift. I am SURE this will be a Hollywood movie and I can't wait.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 29, 2003
Lipman combines subtle deadpan humor with fall-off-the-chair funny like nobody's business. Her characters are oddball like Ann Tyler's but much more appealing. Alice Thrift's mother is priceless. No matter how bad she think your mother is or how she embarrasses you, Mrs. Thrift has got your mother beat. I devoured it in one sitting. Then, because I didn't want it to end and felt deprived, I went and got a chocolate bar.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
Boston surgical intern Alice Thrift is a genius with an IQ in the stratosphere and a Harvard degree. Ray Russo is street educated dropped out. They meet when Ray pursues rhinoplastic surgery (a nose job).<P> For a reason only he knows,, sweet talking Ray courts the caustic Alice, known for her terrorist bedside manner. Shockingly, the brilliant Alice, after shunning Ray¿s pitch as nonsense, finally capitulates. They have sex leading to her realizing that there is more to life than work. Yet ironically her work improves and she even makes a friend Sylvie Schwartz at the hospital. When her platonic former roommate registered nurse Leo Frawley and Sylvie flirt with one another, Alice feels lonely. Vulnerable, she elopes with Ray only to learn he conned her out of cash and his ¿deceased¿ first wife lives with him. Leo and Sylvie are there for Alice, who bitterly knows she failed her first life lesson.<P> Though Alice is not a likable character, fans will feel her loneliness and hope she makes it with someone who cherishes her and she treasures in return. Ray is a mean man while Leo and Sylvie are people the audience would like as friends. The bittersweet story line may seem rough to romance readers, but actually salutes friendship when one thinks a friend in need is a pest and prefers not to become involved, but does so anyway.<P> Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 6, 2011
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Posted November 12, 2011
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Posted February 15, 2011
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Posted February 12, 2012
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