If you can pause a moment from your literary endives and imported squid, Elinor Lipman has baked you a cupcake. I read her new book, The Family Man, released Tuesday, in two binges and am still enjoying the sugar shock.
Henry Archer, a rich, handsome, gay, newly retired lawyer in his 50s living in an entire townhouse on W 75th St., hasn't spoken to his drama queen of an ex-wife, Denise, in 24 years. Then her third husband dies and her adult stepsons get "everything, every last thing except the clothes, the furs, the jewelry, and one signed Picasso, which was only a pencil sketch." She reaches out to Henry for help contesting the pre-nup, and she sets him up with her friend Todd, a 40+ placemat salesman at Gracious Home living with his mother Lillian, who worries. Denise's daughter, Henry's former step-daughter, Thalia, a lovely and sensible 29 year old would-be actress and current coatcheck girl in a hair salon, moves into Henry's basement. The bulk of the plot, echoing The Little Dog Laughed, springs from the complications of Thalia's six-month paid arrangement to be the public girlfriend of an unattractive movie star known for his monster roles, while she juggles at least two other guys who are very good looking and might turn into real relationships. The gay couple act like dual fairy godmothers, disapproving and indulging, saving the day with just the right legal and style advice.
Although moments veer toward sitcom, the book also has scenes of comic gold. Denise attempts to "humanize" her dead husband at his funeral, after a string of saintly eulogies, by offering increasingly quirky memories that spiral into rambling complaints about the deceased. She adopts a greyhound and changes his name from Kill Bill to Albert Einstein because of his high EQ. Todd's coming out to his mother, decades overdue, will induce a paroxysm of cringes and laughs.
Unlike great domestic novelists whose comedy is pushed higher by the realism of failed dreams, money anxiety, unreturned love, and contemporary tedium, Lipman barely glances at the downbeat. Yes, Henry's longtime partner died of cancer a couple years ago, yet he's never mentioned; nothing in their house or in Henry's daily life or in his new relationship with Todd triggers any memories of him. Henry has no sustained reaction or difficulty adjusting to a very altered life after his high powered career is over. Henry and Todd never quarrel, Henry and Thalia - newly reconnected, living under the same roof - never even disagree. Sure, she's a 29 year old smock handler in a hair salon, discouraged about her acting career, but she has a trust fund that will kick in at 35, and, better still, really hot, really nice, single straight guys are constantly wooing her. In Manhattan. Wish fulfillment is a cornerstone of fiction, but the guaranteed simultaneous multiple happy endings for everyone here do diminish the story's urgency.
Nevertheless, dessert is an important part of any well-planned feast. Go ahead, snack! Enjoy! And don't take it from me. The master of the gay - straight domestic novel, Stephen McCauley generously says, "Elinor Lipman's patented blend of wit, whimsy, and love for her characters makes every sentence of The Family Man shine. The book is a delightful Manhattan romp that offers 300 pages of pure reading pleasure."
And Carolyn See in the Washington Post writes, "Just because something is 'light' doesn't mean it's not masterful. Lipman's use of dialogue, for instance, is exquisite…"