NY Times Sunday Book Review
The great accomplishment of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is Lipman's ability to chart the course of this mismatch in an utterly persuasive way, and this in turn relies on Alice's justification of her involvement with a guy who becomes creepier and creepier with each passing chapter. It's not love that possesses Alice (conveying a mad attraction of opposites would be a far simpler task) but loneliness, the desire to feel normal, to feel as if she has a life -- which turns out not to mean what Dr. Alice Thrift, despite her tremendous I.Q., once thought it did.
The New York Times
Elinor Lipman's latest airy, lovelorn comic novel turns out to be her most buoyant, thanks to the utter haplessness of its heroine. — Janet Maslin
The Los Angeles Times
Elinor Lipman reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse, and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is no exception. — Susan Salter Reynolds
… her new novel, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, returns Lipman to the very peak of her form. Like the brilliant British writer Barbara Pym, Lipman creates small domestic spheres in which characters are neither famous nor magical. They are simply, wonderfully, memorably human and therefore complicated and compelling. Deirdre Donahue
Snappy wit, a clever plot and the sheer fun of a book you can't put down await readers of Lipman's (The Inn at Lake Divine) eighth novel, surely her best to date. The eponymous Alice is a sleep-deprived surgical intern at a Boston hospital. A graduate of MIT and Harvard and a congenital workaholic, she's also devoid of social skills, a sense of humor or elementary tact. Though miserably unequipped with self-esteem, Alice is an intelligent, well-brought-up offspring of upper-middle-class parents. Why, then, does she fall prey to the romantic blandishments of Ray Russo, a vulgar loudmouth and con artist who-it turns out-lies every time he opens his mouth? That Lipman can make this story plausible, and tell it with humor, psychological insight and rising suspense, is a triumph. Despite her roommate Leo's description of Ray as " a slimeball who won't take no for an answer," Alice fails to see through her conniving beau because she's achingly lonely and because he remains devoted when she's put on probation for falling asleep while assisting in the OR. It's easy for her to dismiss the concern of family and friends as simple snobbery-which, in some cases, it is. Lipman's knowledge of hospital routine, especially the bone-weary lives of interns and residents, is a major reason that the plot moves along as smoothly as if on ball bearings. The dozen or so supporting characters, from Alice's horrified parents to her good friends and fellow residents, are vividly three-dimensional. Lipman's eye for social pretense has never been so keen-or so cruel. There's a dark moral here-that class differences cannot be breached-but readers will appreciate the candor. Agent, Virginia Barber. Author tour. (June) Forecast: If ever a novel can be lifted intact from page to silver screen, this is one. From the leads to the character parts, there are juicy roles for Hollywood's best. Look for a PW interview in the spring. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Surgical intern Alice Thrift is, by her own admission, a wallflower. Her mother prefers to think of her as socially autistic. But no man-or woman-is an island, and before Alice knows it, her male roommate, a neighbor, and a kindly doctor begin to drag her from her lifelong, self-inflicted emotional exile. Although this social misfit starts to bond with her new friends, her courtship by a traveling fudge salesman leaves her completely bewildered. At first, Alice comes off as an unsympathetic character, but the more she tries to deal with the world as a detached, clinical observer (and the more she fails), the more sympathetic she becomes. Told in the first person, Lipman's seventh novel (after The Dearly Departed) is both funny and poignant, and it is appropriate for most fiction collections in libraries of all sizes. Lipman fans and readers who enjoy the television series Scrubs will go for this similarly offbeat novel about the quirkiness of the medical world. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 2/1/03.]-Shelley Mosley, Glendale P.L., AZ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Popular for sprightly if predictable romantic comedies (The Dearly Departed, 2001, etc.), Lipman stretches her boundaries in her newest by letting readers know early on that her lovers will not end up happily every after-at least not together. All work and no play Alice Thrift is a Harvard-educated surgical intern at a Boston hospital. Ray Russo is an uneducated, coarse, and sleazy fudge salesman who also claims to be a widower. Alice begins her deadpan narration by quoting the New York Times description of their wedding, letting us know right off that the marriage has ended disastrously before she retraces their courtship. Ray enters her life looking for a nose job. That he immediately begins to pursue Alice raises immediate suspicions given Alice's off-putting personality, which Lipman does almost too good a job conveying. Alice is book smart but lacks any bedside manner, sense of humor, or ability to interact with others. When she considers quitting medicine after being put on probation for falling asleep on the job, her roommate Leo, a charming and (of course) handsome male nurse, bucks her up with pep talks and pizza. She doesn't resign, and she continues resisting Ray, who won't take no for an answer. But Leo's new girlfriend is a midwife who disdains doctors, so Alice moves into a studio apartment. She succumbs to Ray's transparent seduction and begins having regular sex. Her job performance improves, she makes friends with her fellow doctor-in-training Sylvie. But needy Alice feels left out by Sylvie's mild flirtation with Leo, who is squabbling with his now-pregnant girlfriend. In reaction she elopes with Ray. At the elaborate after-the-fact wedding, Alice discovers Ray's "deadwife" is in fact a living girlfriend. Without breaking any laws, Ray has bamboozled her out of money, but she is wiser, and also happier, living now in a three-bedroom apartment with Sylvie and Leo (who may have potential as more than pal). A clever sweet tart, more tart that sweet.
From the Publisher
“Simply, wonderfully, memorably human and therefore complicated and compelling. . . . A total treat.” —USA Today
“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
Read an Excerpt
1Copyright© 2003 by Elinor Lipman
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?