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From Barnes & NobleNashville
Imagine Jane Austen reincarnated to contemporary Massachusetts and you begin to understand why the Northampton, Massachusetts-based writer Elinor Lipman -- author of, most famously, Isabel's Bed and The Inn at Lake Devine -- is so beloved. Astute and the kind of funny that used to be known as "droll," Lipman is a modern-day chronicler of manners, a visionary with an eagle eye and a sharp but ultimately generous tongue.
Lipman's latest, The Ladies' Man, starts from a very ripe premise. Nash Harvey (né Harvey Nash in the middle-class Boston suburbs) is a smooth, handsome commercial jingle writer now based in Los Angeles. When the book opens, Nash is on his way back to Boston, ostensibly to make amends to Adele Dobbins, the woman he skipped out on (at their engagement party, no less!) 30 years earlier. Adele is what your grandmother -- and more importantly, Adele herself -- would call a "spinster." She lives with her two equally unmarried sisters in a suburban apartment, and while the Dobbins sisters participate in the real business world -- Kathleen has her own lingerie shop, Lois (the only divorcée) works for the state, and Adele raises money for public TV -- the sexual revolution seems to have passed them by. Like the slightly off characters that are novelist Anne Tyler's trademark, the three sisters live together, mostly without boyfriends or lovers or friends, save for the intermittent visits of their lone brother, a process server who is himself no prize in the marriage sweepstakes.
Enter Nash, who -- it is soon revealed -- says he's come to right old wrongs but who is, in fact, still the same old womanizing commitment-phobe he was back in high school. Having fled his live-in L.A. girlfriend, Dina -- a reflexologist, the perfect L.A. bimbo job -- Nash picks up a woman on the plane east. In one of the novel's finest series of scenes, we watch Nash alternately sweet-talk and self-deprecate himself into bed with her. "I'm not a kid," he explains in faux-self-aware mode. "I should be less impetuous, not more. But I'm also less patient. Also, I've been around. I know when something clicks." This guy should have his picture in the dictionary under "wolf in sheep's clothing."
Meanwhile, back in L.A., Dina is meeting her own ladies' man, a visiting playwright from New York who appears so unsmooth as to be the anti-Nash. But this being a Lipman novel, no one and nothing turns out to be quite what they seem. Add in some revelations and subplots about Kathleen Dobbins's budding romance with a security guard in her office building (which happens to be where Cynthia, Nash's latest conquest, lives), Adele's very nervous suitor/boss, and Lois Dobbins's delusions about her own desires, and you end up with a gentle comedy of manners about everybody's favorite subject: Why do we love whom we love, and just who is that person anyway?
In Lipman's previous works, even the frothiest tales had a weighty back story -- the anti-Semitism at the root of The Inn at Lake Devine may have accounted for that novel's appearance on many "Best of '98" lists -- and some readers may notice a lack of one here. But Lipman's strength has always been as a social observer, and some of the set pieces in this book rival the best work she has done. In addition to the cringingly accurate seduction of the 50-year-old Cynthia on the plane, there's a dinner party scene that for all its convoluted, interconnected relationships is downright brilliant and hilarious. Cynthia invites neighbors and friends to meet her new boyfriend, whom she bills as a famous musical arranger. Nash -- ever on the prowl for attractive women guests -- tries to imply he's playing roommate more than lover without, of course, letting his lover know what he's doing. Meanwhile, the guests want him to play his more famous compositions -- of which he has virtually none. When Kathleen Dobbins arrives on the arm of her doorman/boyfriend, Nash's cover threatens to be blown. This is the stuff -- coincidentally crossed paths, jockeying for social position, posing -- of which the best Lipman novels are made.
Besides, who says social posturing and the search for love are not "important" themes? They certainly served Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and countless other "serious" novelists well. The way Elinor Lipman writes, the way she finds something familiar and even endearing in a cad like Nash, the way she makes us feel simultaneously protective of and frustrated with the Dobbins sisters: Those are the qualities her fans have come to expect. Some writers promise to take you to places you've never been; Lipman takes us into the nooks and crannies of our own mixed-up lives, makes us laugh at our foibles, and then forgives us for laughing.