Elinor Lipman – Fiction and Nonfiction

Fiction: The View from Penthouse B

9780547576213_p0_v1_s260x420Elinor Lipman is an acquired taste; her characters are likable, ordinary, sometimes boring, and in The View from Penthouse B her focus on three sisters once again reveals how everyday connections can take the mundane to the universal. Although the focus is the widowed middle sister, Gwen-Laura, who moves into her older sister’s new York penthouse apartment, a cast of characters quickly manage to overwhelm the slow-moving story.

Recognizable contemporary issues drive the action: older sister Margot has lost all her money in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; her husband, a famous medical doctor is in jail for having sex with his patients; a new gay roommate bakes cupcakes after losing his job at Lehman Brothers; Gwen looks to online dating to find a new life. Sometimes working like a slow Marx Brothers movie, the angles intersect humorously and without much rancor. Although I am a Lipman fan, I found myself falling asleep reading this book – in the middle of the day. If you need fast-paced thrills, this is not for you, but as comfort food for the soul, Lipman’s style is a reminder of the possibility that life can always get better.

Nonfiction: I Can’t Complain

9780547576206_p0_v1_s260x420Lipman’s book of short essays – I Can’t Complain – arrived from the library with her novel. The collection draws from Lipman’s experiences, with the last essay neatly summarizing the plot of her new novel, noting parallels to Lipman’s life after the untimely death of her husband.

I liked this collection of real stories better than the fictionalized version.

One of my favorite books is Berg’s collection of essays that opens with The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted; the same deprecating humor and memorable lines flow through I Can’t Complain. Somehow, Elinor Lipman channeled my mother, my attitudes, sometimes my secret fears – but then Lipman prides herself in connecting to Everyman in her novels of manners – so maybe we all are like that?

On Holding a Grudge:

Upon meeting me you’d find me pleasant, reasonable, and without question, nice…But let me step aside and introduce the inner child…who very much likes to hold a grudge…My personal trepsverter (Yiddish expression meaning ‘perfect retort’) is the tape in my head, always cued up, of the dialogue I might have voiced if life were a soap opera, where good characters scold the bad characters, and the bad characters stand still long enough to hear it.

Real life rarely presents those opportunities. If I find myself in the company of someone who slighted me in, say, 1986, and I excavate the old insult, my conviction, and my voice soon fade: this villain remembers neither the conversation, the context, nor me.”

On Trying to Impress One’s Mother:

“…{at a} book group luncheon. I tried to be winning and entertaining so she could see me in action and be proud. I talked my heart out. She smiled and nodded regally from her chair at the head table… As soon as we got in the car, I asked,”So? What’d you think?” She smiled, patted her own shoulder pads. “I think this suit was a very good choice for this event, don’t you?”

Another review on a Lipman book: The Family Man

The Darlings

Cristina Alger offers her version of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme in her first novel – The Darlings.  Adding marital infidelity, crooked schemes by  unsavory lawyers, and a disgraced Securities and Exchange Commission, Alger mixes fiction with reality in her story of the New York Darlings – a wealthy family caught in the middle of illegal trading activities.

Billionaire Carter Darling, the head of the family and partner in a lucrative brokerage firm, carefully manages his wife and two grown daughters as well as his business, until a trusted family friend, his source for amazing investments that never seem to fail, suddenly jumps off the Tappan Zee Bridge on the day before Thanksgiving.  Alger cleverly distills the action into the holiday weekend, from revelation on Thursday to betrayal on Saturday and indictment on Monday. Within days, the Darlings descend from a life of privilege to one of crime and regret.

Shifting alliances – with every man for himself – carry some suspense: Will the culprits be able to frame innocent onlookers and go free themselves? Will Carter use Paul, his unsuspecting son-in-law as the fall guy, or will Paul become state’s evidence?  Will the headline hungry journalists uncover the truth?  But the story plods along, giving inordinate attention to the ritzy lifestyle and glamorous surroundings of the wealthy.  As a former debutante, Harvard graduate, analyst for Goldman Sachs, and corporate lawyer, Alger had a front row seat to the privileged life as well as to recent Wall Street horrors, and it’s hard not to imagine she is basing some of her characters on real associates and “friends.”

A quick read on a familiar scenario – a friend once told me she would finish a book that has a weak story, if the characters engaged her.  I wonder who in New York society is reading The Darlings to match the characters to someone they know.

The Wizard of Lies

Bernie Madoff is in jail for being a crook; Diana Henriques makes that clear before she begins to report with a steady staccato beat on The Wizard of Lies – Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.  Liking this man is not an option.  He is arrogant, scheming, manipulative, and greedy.  And, clearly, his focus has always been on his own best interests.

Henriques uses a detached reporter’s tone to unveil his background as well as his rise and fall in the business world, but her skepticism and disdain filters into the facts.  I’ve only just begun to read the book, and already I have the urge to wash off the slime.  The book flap promises “the most complete account of the heartbreaking personal disasters and landmark legal battles triggered by Madoff’s downfall – the suicides, business failures, fractured families, shuttered charities…this timeless scandal.”

Not sure I want to read that far, but I like knowing he’s in jail.