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Reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Report.
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May 29, 2006
My Latest Grievance, by Elinor Lipman, Houghton Mifflin Company, 256 pp., $24.
What to do with Elinor Lipman? Her books are enjoyable, but so darn optimistic! What's more, she refuses to condemn intermarriage.
At a time when tales of unrelieved angst seem to be the surest way to grab the literary spotlight, Elinor Lipman is that rarity among writers--a true believer in happy endings. "My writing is a product of my world view," she observes. "Which is embarrassingly optimistic."
Frederica Hatch, the 16-year-old narrator of My Latest Grievance, certainly has her fair share of angst. As she comes of age during the mid-1970s, she finds her adolescent rebellion short-circuited by her ultra-liberal college-professor parents. What's a red-blooded teenager to do? Fortunately she's rescued from a life of terminal political correctness by the arrival on campus of Laura Lee French--glamorous, flamboyant and, most significantly, her staid father's first wife. Under Laura Lee's dubious influence, Frederica is delighted to feel herself "slipping, philosophically speaking." "Not that I didn't want wrongs to be righted," she protests. "But I also wanted the freedom to voice my admiration for all things material and foolish. And to wear clothes not stitched by the Ladies Garment Workers Union." From the outset, it's abundantly clear that Frederica will emerge from this encounter older and wiser. What saves the story from becoming a predictable moral fable, though, is Lipman's ability to make the vain and flighty Laura Lee worthy of Frederica's interest and compassion, and ultimately, worthy of ours too. The novel encompasses adultery, illegitimacy, attempted suicide and alcoholism--hardly fodder for an optimist. Yet through it all Lipman never loses her light touch. She won't abandon Frederica to her misery, and the happy ending, when it finally arrives, is neither neat nor cliched. It comes with an unexpected twist, a hallmark of Lipman's style.
My Latest Grievance is the ninth of her books, all of which have been well- received. A 1972 graduate of Boston's Simmons College, Lipman started writing fiction almost by accident. In her late 20s, having grown frustrated with her job in public relations, she signed up on a whim for a graduate course in creative writing. A few years later, she published a collection of short stories, Into Love and Out Again. Her first novel, Then She Found Me (1990), soon followed. Lipman's quirky characters and snappy dialogue quickly charmed readers and she has since gained an enthusiastic following for her off-beat romances.
Critics have frequently compared her to Jane Austen. Fellow novelist Fay Weldon recently praised Lipman as an "Austen-like" stylist in The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune urged readers to "Think Jane Austen in the Catskills!" when reviewing her fourth novel, The Inn at Lake Devine. Of course, being dubbed a contemporary Austen may not be all that unusual. After all, what successful female writer of light fiction hasn't been hailed as the new Austen by devoted admirers? Lipman, however, is distinguished not just by her wit but also by her "Austen-like" willingness to let her characters expose their faults and weaknesses, sometimes to her own surprise. "I don't plan ahead," she swears. Although her plots often appear tightly choreographed, she works without an outline, the writer's version of an acrobat's net. "If I'm lucky, a sentence will come to me that intrigues me enough so that I want to see where it will go … I keep writing because I want to know what happens next."
And she's not ashamed to poke fun at her own penchant for looking on the bright side, either. "My husband and son will be discussing a movie and my husband will ask, 'Do you think your mom will like that?' And my son will say, 'Nah, Mom only likes movies that are affirmations of the human spirit.'"
"I had a very safe, functional family," she admits with slight chagrin when queried about her background. The second of two daughters, she grew up in the suburbs of Lowell, Massachusetts, an environment she richly mined for The Inn at Lake Devine. Devine opens with the protagonist, Natalie Marx, waxing nostalgic over a neighborhood which, like Lipman's, was "one third each Protestant, Catholic and Jewish," and where "no one's house was any better than anyone else's." Inevitably, though, even this Eden of the 1950s has a serpent. It slips in in the form of a letter from an innkeeper in Vermont. Responding to their inquiry regarding accommodations, proprietor Ingrid Berry informs the Marxes, "Our guests who feel most comfortable and return year after year are Gentiles." Twelve-year-old Natalie is at first indignant, then curious. She finagles an invitation to the forbidding inn through a bunkmate at summer camp, and promptly develops a crush on the innkeeper's eldest son, Nelson.
Lake Devine isn't quite a comedy of manners about anti-Semitism, though it does come close to it. When the adult Natalie returns to the inn, she falls in love again, this time with the Berrys' second son, Kris. Her friend Linette Feldman, daughter of a Catskills hotelier, subsequently captures the heart of the aforementioned Nelson. All's well that ends well, and The Inn at Lake Devine ends with what Lipman refers to, both in person and in print, as "rampant mixed marriage."
Popular as she may be, the ease with which Lipman depicts mixed marriage doesn't always sit well with her audience. Whenever she speaks to Jewish groups, she says, the first question she faces is invariably, "Don't you think you have a social responsibility to encourage Jews to marry Jews?" The suggestion is enough to ruffle even her cheerful equanimity. "It's not your daughter, it's a book," she retorts. "If one Jewish woman falls in love with one non-Jewish man, doesn't the writer have the right to write about that?"
Lipman herself married a doctor whom she met on a blind date in college. That he is also a Jew strikes her as mere serendipity. She married because she fell in love and she defends her characters' right to do likewise. "All around me I see fabulous mixed marriages of long duration," she argues. "With fabulous children."
Frederica Hatch, of My Latest Grievance, is one of those children. Precocious and articulate, she introduces her WASP father and Jewish mother to the reader as "two bleeding hearts that beat as one." David Hatch and Aviva Ginsberg present a united front, whether agitating on behalf of their faculty union or educating their child. They conscientiously observe both Hanukkah and Christmas, as well as the day the National Labor Relations Board declared that college faculty members were covered under the National Labor Relations Act, an event "forever celebrated by the Hatches as a holiday with cake." Frederica isn't torn between Judaism and Christianity, but between left-wing activism and her longing for a "conventional" family life like that of her best friend, Patsy, whose stay-at-home mom wears lipstick and aprons.
Still, Frederica doesn't remain completely oblivious to the dilemmas posed by her heritage. Her father's Christian mother may be sensitive enough to wrap her Christmas gifts in Hanukkah paper, but Grandma still ends grace at the family table with thanks to "Christ our Lord amen." As in "Lake Devine," these incidents are presented as more irritating than threatening. Even the politically correct Aviva rolls her eyes patiently at her mother-in-law's gaffes, reassuring Frederica that "at least she made latkes" for Christmas dinner. Not every conflict can be reduced to "Sociology 101," observes Frederica, who is drawn to social life, not social movements, a tendency she shares with her author.
"People get along in my books," Lipman points out. "And when they don't, it's for personal reasons, not for … political ones."
These days, multiculturalism may need all the help it can get. Lipman and many of her best fans belong to a generation that believed society could have diversity without divisiveness, ethnic pride without ethnic conflict. But is this just a liberal fantasy?
A full-time writer and life-long resident of the East Coast, Lipman currently divides her time between New York and Northampton, Massachusetts--the latter a college town famous (or infamous) for its embrace of all things leftist. Is this the real world, I ask her. Every day the news reminds us that, far from fading away, ethnic and religious boundaries are sharpening around the globe. Are her characters living in a time warp? Are her novels doomed to become relics of a bygone, idealistic era, when people honestly thought they could "get along"? "That's a wonderful and deep question," Lipman acknowledges. It intrigues her as a person, but not as a writer. Defying trends, she persists in believing that a novelist can capture universal human experience, even in this age of identity politics.
Universality, unfortunately, might be as unfashionable today as optimism. Savvy publicists package authors by age, genre, gender or ethnicity, in order to raise their profile in a competitive marketplace. In spite of her efforts to avoid it, Lipman has frequently been pigeon-holed as yet another writer of women's novels, or so-called "chick lit." Lipman dismisses the label as sales ploy. Women buy more books than men, an economic reality publishers cannot afford to ignore.
"My book covers would arrive and my son would say, 'Mom, no guy would be caught dead reading that.'" She grimaces. When she told him The Inn at Lake Devine concerned an anti-Semitic hotel, he quipped with teenage audacity, "If you put a swastika on the cover, men would buy it too." She throws up her hands. "Now my editors think he's a marketing genius!"
Obviously, though, Lipman won't be resorting to sensationalized cover art any time soon, at least if she has any say in it. She doesn't have to. Optimism is as unlikely to go out of style permanently as love itself. When Frederica is called upon to explain to Laura Lee's daughter, Julia, the peculiar and painful circumstances surrounding Julia's birth, Frederica knows, "I should be able to tell her the truth." But truth consists of more than facts. Frederica isn't like her parents, whose convictions require them to live their entire lives "under oath." Instead, she tells Julia that "every character in her story, at one time, loved each other deeply," whether social activist or socialite, solid citizen, dilettante, bohemian artist or bleeding heart.
Ultimately, Lipman's appeal lies in this capacity to tell stories about people who do indeed love one another deeply--if not all the time, at least often enough to keep the angst at bay and the hope of happy endings alive.
To hear Web Magazine Editor Ronnie Friedland's interview with Elinor Lipman, click here.