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.
I loved every page of this very funnyinsightfulsophisticated yet good-natured bookbut it took me a while to realize that it was a sex farce....The Ladies' Man never suggests that all men are like Nash Harvey....This book isn't even angry with its villain; it just shakes its head in amused amazement anda little wiserwalks away. The New York Times Book Review
The Ladies' Man is three things: the title of Lipman's newest book; a description of the main male character, Nash Harvey; and the book's weakness. The basic premise of the book is that Nash Harvey, n Harvey Nash, has a crisis of conscience over an engagement he walked out on 30 years ago. He returns to Boston to see Adele Dobbin, his spurned fianc e. Nash's visit teaches Adele and her two unmarried sisters a new lesson "about dignity being less important than love." Nash is a shallow smooth talker, seemingly addicted to lust and unfamiliar with love. The difficulty with the novel is that while Lipman (The Inn at Lake Devine, LJ 2/1/98) characterizes Nash so well, in doing so she creates a central character who is most unsympathetic. Furthermore, Lipman has Nash cut a romantic swath through the lives of other women during the course of the novel, creating a large cast of female characters, none of whom are fully developed. A book of moderate appeal.--Caroline M. Hallsworth, Cambrian Coll., Sudbury, Ont. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
The book has Robert Altman screenplay written all over it. We liked it so much we went and bought Ms. Lipman's previous novel.
A romantic comedy of errors by the novelist whose previous labors in this vineyard (Isabel's Bed, 1995, etc.) have established her as a master hand. Harvey Nash is the sort of fellow your mother warned you about. Genial, good-hearted, and sincere, he genuinely likes the company of women and is attentive to their moods and concerns. All the worse for the women who fall for him, then, since he's an incorrigible bachelor who can't commit himselfalmost literallyon pain of law. Harvey left his native Boston quite abruptly on the evening of March 11, 1967and it's no coincidence that that was the night his engagement to Adele Dobbin was to have been announced at a big party at the Copley Plaza. When he stopped running, Harvey found himself in California, where he settled in Los Angeles (as "Nash Harvey") and established a successful career in advertising. Almost 30 years later, he has a live-in girlfriend, Dina, who wants (very badly) to settle down and get pregnant. But, again, Harvey just can't see his way clear. So now he reverses course and heads back to Boston to look up Adelebut not before hooking up with Cynthia John, a sharp-eyed investor who sits next to him on the plane. In Boston, Adele is still unmarried and lives in a kind of bitch-goddess convent with Lois and Kathleen, her equally unattached sisters. She's understandably less than thrilled to find Harvey on her doorstep, but Lois (who always had a thing for him) tries to welcome him back into the fold. Meanwhile, Dina is cruising beaches and coffee-bars in search of an (unwitting) semen donor, and Harvey and Cynthia are having some drama of their own. The course of true love is seldom a straight line,true enough. But can it be a series of overlapping circles? Funny, dumb, good-natured, predictable, and slick: Lipman knows what she wants to do and does it very well.
Advance praise for The Ladies' Man
"Elinor Lipman is that rarest of things, a charming and funny writer who is also very wise. But your spouse will hate you for reading this book; you'll stay up late nights, shaking the bed with laughter."
"I have not read an American writer who can do what Elinor Lipman does: take a poignant situation and transform it, in a moment of instant recognition, into something as wryly perfect as a New Yorker cartoon. The Ladies' Man is full of charm, verbal sparkle, and funny, genial sex. I adored it. Every page. Definitely her best."