Unexpectedly widowed Gwen-Laura Schmidt is still mourning her husband, Edwin, when her older sister Margot invites her to join forces as roommates in Margot’s luxurious Village apartment. For Margot, divorced amid scandal (hint: her husband was a fertility doctor) and then made Ponzi-poor, it’s a chance to shake Gwen out of her grief and help make ends meet. To further this effort she enlists a third boarder, the handsome, cupcake-baking Anthony.
As the three swap money-making schemes and timid Gwen ventures back out into the dating world, the arrival of Margot’s paroled ex in the efficiency apartment downstairs creates not just complications but the chance for all sorts of unexpected forgiveness. A sister story about love, loneliness, and new life in middle age, this is a cracklingly witty, deeply sweet novel from one of our finest comic writers.
“Her worldview? Her enthusiasm, her effortless wit? Just a few of the reasons we love Elinor Lipman.”–Boston Globe
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About the Author
ELINOR LIPMAN is the author of ten novels, including The Inn at Lake Devine and My Latest Grievance, winner of the Paterson Fiction Prize. In 2001 she won the New England Book Award for fiction.
ELINOR LIPMAN is the award-winning author of eleven 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 New York City.
Hometown:Northampton, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 16, 1950
Place of Birth:Lowell, Massachusetts
Education:A.B., Simmons College, 1972; Honorary Doctor of Letters, Simmons College, 2000
Read an Excerpt
Since Edwin died, I have lived with my sister Margot in the Batavia, an Art Deco apartment building on beautiful West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. This arrangement has made a great deal of sense for us both: I lost my husband without warning, and Margot lost her entire life’s savings to the Ponzi schemer whose name we dare not speak.
Though we call ourselves roommates, we are definitely more than that, something on the order of wartime trenchmates. She refers to me fondly as her boarder — ironic, of course, because no one confuses a boarding house with an apartment reached via an elevator button marked ph. In a sense, we live in both luxury and poverty, looking out over the Hudson while stretching the contents of tureens of stews and soups that Margot cooks expertly and cheerfully.
She takes cookbooks out of the library and finds recipes that add a little glamour to our lives without expensive ingredients, so a pea soup that employs a ham bone might start with sautéed cumin seeds or a grilled cheese sandwich is elevated to an entrée with the addition of an exotic slaw on the plate. We mostly get along fine, and our division of labor is fair: cook and dishwasher, optimist and pessimist.
Margot has turned herself into a professional blogger — or so she likes to announce. Her main topic is the incarcerated lifer who stole all her money, and her readers were primarily her fellow victims. I use “were” instead of “are” because visitors to www.thepoorhouse.com dwindled to zero at one point. The blog produces no money and has no advertisers, but she says it is just as good for confession and self-reflection as the expensive sounding board who once was her psychoanalyst.
When asked by strangers what I do, I tell them I have something on the drawing board, hoping my mysterious tone implies Can’t say more than that. So far, it’s only a concept, one that grew out of my own social perspective. It occurred to me that there might be a niche for arranging evenings between a man and a woman who desired nothing more than companionship. The working title for my organization is “Chaste Dates.” So far, no one finds it either catchy or appealing.
Best-case scenario: I’d network with licensed matchmakers and establish reciprocity. They’d send me their timid, and I’d send them my marriage-minded. Might there be singletons with a healthy fear of intimacy versus the sin-seekers of Match.com? I hope to find them.
Everyone I’ve confided in — my younger sister, Betsy, for example, who has a job in banking in the sticky, bundling side of mortgages — hates the idea and/or tells me I’m thinking small. She’s the sister who is always alert to rank and ambition. Her husband is a lawyer who didn’t make partner, left the law, and teaches algebra in a public high school in an outer borough of New York. You’d think she’d brag about that, but she doesn’t. Occasionally I catch her telling someone that Andrew went to law school with this president or that first lady and neglecting to mention his subsequent career. I usually tell her later, “You should be proud of what he does.”
“Algebra?” she snarls, despite the fact that, unlike the progeny of a lot of New Yorkers who spend a fortune on tutors, both of her children excel in math. Edwin was a public school teacher, so I expect a little more sensitivity. These conversations push Chaste Dates further into oblivion. Still in mourning, I am easily overwhelmed.
Margot is divorced from Charles, a too-handsome, board-certified physician with an ugly story, who calls our apartment collect from his country club of a prison. He was/is a gynecologist, now under suspension, with a reckless subspecialty that drew the lonely and libidinous. Patients came with an infertility story and left a little ruddier and more relaxed than when they arrived. Who were these women, Margot and I always marvel, who knew how to signal, feet in stirrups, that a doctor’s advances would be deemed not only consensual but medical? Yes, Charles partnered with a sperm bank, whose donors were advertised as brilliant, healthy, handsome men with high IQs, graduate degrees, and above-average height. And, yes, the vast majority of his practice was artificial rather than personal insemination. But for a few, the main draw was Charles himself, a silver-haired, blue-eyed, occasionally sensitive man, the kind of physician women put their faith in and develop a crush on. Overall, it was lucky that Charles suffered from borderline oligospermia — in layman’s terms, a low-to-useless sperm count. Did he know? Of course. We’re not sure how he framed these trespasses, but some patients must have told themselves that a doctor’s fleshly ministrations, midcycle, were donorlike and ethical in some footnoted way, imagining the top-notch child and possible romantic entanglement that his DNA could yield. His bedside talents were such, apparently, that satisfied customers came back for subsequent treatments. Luckily, only one procedure took, only one child was conceived, one son eventually revealed through due diligence. Charles might still be practicing amorous medicine, except that his unknowing bookkeeper charged the paramours a fee commensurate with an outside donor — five thousand dollars, the going rate at the time — and thus fraud of a punishable, actionable kind. “Fraud” on the books; “malpractice,” “adultery,” “grounds for divorce,” and “sin” everywhere else. Margot left the day he was rather publicly arrested. Her settlement was enormous. She bought her penthouse, invested the rest catastrophically, and resumed the use of her maiden name.
Edwin died one month before turning fifty, without getting sick first, due to a malformation of his heart valves that proved fatal. One morning I woke up and found that he hadn’t, a sight and a shock that I wonder if I’ve yet recovered from.
Even twenty-three months after his death, his absence is always present. People assume I am grateful for the memories, but where they’re wrong is that the memories cause more wistfulness than comfort. It’s hard to find a subject that doesn’t summon Edwin, no matter how mundane. All topics — music, food, movies, wall colors, a stranger’s questions about my marital status or the location of the rings on my fingers — bring him back. I haven’t seen much progress in two years. Keeping someone’s memory alive has its voluntary and involuntary properties. You want to and you don’t. You’re not going to hide the photos, but neither will you relocate the images of his formerly happy, healthy, smiling face to your bedside night table.
Amateur shrinks are everywhere. “Ed wouldn’t want you to be staying home, would he?” — to me, who never called him Ed. And, “If it was you who had died, wouldn’t you want him to find someone else?” They mean well, I’m told. I think Edwin actually would be glad I haven’t remarried, dated, or looked. He wasn’t a jealous husband, but he was a sentimental one.
It’s good to be around Margot, an amusingly bitter ex-wife. She loathes Charles so I join in. We enjoy discussing his felonious acts, a subject we never tire of. Hating Charles is good for her and oddly good for me. We often start the day over coffee with a new insight into his egregiousness. Margot might begin a rant by saying, “Maybe he chose to be an ob-gyn just for this very purpose. Naked women, legs open, one every twenty minutes.”
The summing up of his character flaws often leads one of us to say, usually with a sigh, that it’s just as well Charles didn’t father a child inside their marriage. Imagine trying to explain his behavior to a son or daughter of any age? Imagine having a jailbird for a father. That, of course, reminds me that Edwin and I tried, but without success and without great commitment. For years, Margot urged me to consult Charles, but who would want to be seen by a brother-in-law in such an intimate arena? Knowing now about his modus operandi, that I might have given birth to my own niece or nephew, I am forever thankful that I resisted. Lately Margot is juicing up her blog by admitting that her ex is the once-esteemed physician-felon who was a tabloid headline for a whole season. As the subject tilts from the recession to his unique brand of adultery, she’s won new readers. Though she’s not much of a stylist, her writing is lively and her pen poisonous in a most engaging way.
Living here is interesting and soothing. It’s a beautiful apartment with what Margot calls “dimensions.” Hallways veer this way and that, so you can’t see from one end of the apartment what’s going on in the other. The building has doormen, porters, and a menagerie of fancy purebred dogs. Edwin and I lived more modestly in a ground-floor, rent-controlled one-bedroom on West End Avenue. The Batavia shares its name with a Dutch ship that struck a reef off the coast of Australia in 1629. Amazingly enough, most of its shipwrecked passengers survived.
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 changethat 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