It’s Elinor Lipman’s year
Boston Globe columnist Elinor Lipman has perhaps not received the attention she deserves as a novelist. But now that is all set to change and 2007 looks like being her year. Headline Review is pouring out her titles old and new and her early offering, “Then She Found Me”, is being made into a film starring Bette Midler, Helen Hunt, Colin Firth and Matthew Broderick. Even this will have a special literary connection in that Salman Rushdie, no less, will have a cameo role as a gynaecologist.
First on the Headline Review conveyor belt is “My Latest Grievance”, which is about to appear in paperback as well as hardback.
This concerns Frederica Hatch, who is named after her elderly Jewish uncle, a participant in the dangerous Freedom Ride protests against racial segregation when he was in his 80s. Does that mean that if she had been a boy she would have been named Frederick, she asks her parents. No, she would have been named Julius after Julius Rosenberg, the Communist martyr of the Macarthy era.
Aged 16, Frederica is interested in might-have-beens. It is 1978, and her parents, who have sacrificed their careers in championing good causes, teach and act as dorm parents at a New England women’s college which is little more than a finishing school. Frederica is coming out of a charmed childhood as the honorary little sister to generations of dim but good-natured girls, thoroughly spoiled, with no sense of privacy of her own, or respect for anyone else’s, ness make her an attractive alternative to Frederica’s serious-minded, dowdy mother. While Laura Lee is happy to participate in anyone’s fantasy life, her own self-centred agenda creates a web of sexual intrigue which robs Frederica of all respect for adults and threatens the security of the only existence she knows.
Frederica is a monstrously wise child, and a wickedly entertaining narrator. Bitchy, manipulative, and far too knowing , she is a wonderful vehicle for Lipman’s sharp eye for character and fine ear for dialogue which propels the story along. Lipman’s gentle social satire and Frederica’s often hypocritical indignation lure the reader into a complicit intimacy which revels in the burgeoning scandal. The atmosphere of the dorm, its confidences, gossip and shifting alliances , the only world Frederica knows, colours everything.
Yet this is a novel of truth as well as consequences. Lipman does not spare us the pain that romantic intrigue causes, and Frederica discovers that the other-worldly political correctness she finds so ridiculous in her parents is built on solid values — values which she shares when they are put to the test in a series of natural and moral disasters which expose Laura Lee’s terrifying selfishness.
This is a beautifully constructed novel, with not a word of the spare prose superfluous, not a thread left untied. The plot breathes naturally even as Lipman leads us along Frederica’s journey through precocious curiosity, disillusion, and forgiveness. And it teaches that, if the Laura Lees of this world are beyond redemption, they are capable of kindness after their own fashion.
Elinor Lipman: a big year ahead for the under-rated novelist and an envious curiosity as to what an ordinary life might be.
Then a might-have-been takes flesh in the shape of Laura Lee, her father’s first wife and hitherto family secret. Laura Lee has been able to remain in perpetual adolescence, in pursuit of a semi-fictional career as a dancer, on her alimony payments from Frederica’s father. The Hatch family’s threadbare existence is not solely due to noble self-sacrifice after all.
When Laura Lee arrives on campus as dorm mother at another dormitory, Frederica is drawn to her as both protector and surrogate daughter. Laura Lee’s gaudy dress sense and playful-