Lipman's gentle wit infuses 'The Ladies' Man'

July 23, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

Let's say you're getting ready for your vacation. Your flight leaves in the morning, your bags are packed, you're all ready to go. You need just one more thing: A good book to read on the plane.

I recommend "The Ladies' Man" (Vintage, 2000, $12) by Elinor Lipman, available in paperback. It's sophisticated and funny, which is just how I imagine the author to be.

"If I had to choose between statuesque, brilliant or funny, I'd take funny," Lipman said in a phone interview. "In my family it was important to be funny, I saved up anecdotes for the dinner table."

But her family took some things seriously, particularly its secrets.

One of the most closely guarded family secrets was the story of her mother's cousin, Martha, who was jilted on the eve of her wedding. Lipman didn't even learn of that particular family secret until more than 70 years after the shameful event, but like a good novelist she tucked it away for future use.

And that became the premise for "The Ladies' Man."

The fictional story of "The Ladies' Man" goes like this: In the spring of 1967 an engagement party is held for Adele Dobbin and her fiance, a handsome, charming young man named Harvey Nash. But Nash fails to show up and no one sees him again...until a cold winter night 30 years later when he (rechristened Nash Harvey) appears unannounced at the Boston apartment the still-single Adele shares with her two unmarried sisters.

Nash Harvey has returned from California to set things right. He's still handsome, charming, and totally irresponsible but he becomes the unlikely catalyst who changes the lives of the three sisters.

"It takes a sense of humor to like him as a character," Lipman admitted. "Some people like him because he's so awful and others find him disconcerting. How women especially react to him might depend on the particular woman's experience. If she's been deeply hurt she might not find him amusing.

"But I'd like my readers to see if there aren't a few places in the book where Harvey Nash/Nash Harvey has a moment of nobility, however brief," she added.

Lipman uses language in the book to give the story an old-fashioned feeling, even though it's supposed to be set in present day Boston. Words like "parlor" and "beau" give the book a gentle flavor. Even the cover illustration for the Vintage edition features a man and a woman in 1940s era clothing.

And like a good old-fashioned story, this book has a satisfying ending that ties up many loose ends.

Lipman, 49, lives in Northampton, Mass. She is currently working on her next book, tentatively titled "The Member Guest." Actually, the publisher wants a new title, but she likes this and I think it works, too.

"I don't know what name it will be published under," said Lipman. "My goal is to finish the book by Oct. 1. We are spending two weeks in Maine on vacation so while my husband fishes I will write. I get a lot done on vacations."

The story involves a young woman who comes back to her East Coast home town when her mother dies. They lived on the edge of a golf course in a house that was rented to needy families. The young woman had at one time been the only female member of the local golf team. I'm looking forward to its publication.

Lipman is the author of five novels including "The Inn at Lake Devine," "The Way Men Act," and "Isabel's Bed." Comparisons are inevitably made between Lipman and another writer of gentle wit, Jane Austen.

"The first time I saw myself compared to Jane Austen in print, I was completely thrilled," she said. "But now I wonder if the comparison isn't made just because I write what's called comedy of manners."

Lipman attended Simmons College in Boston, graduating in 1972 with a major in what was then called publications.

"I was very intent on becoming a journalist," she said. She had a series of dull jobs on in-house publications for various businesses and non-profits and in desperation began writing fiction on the side. She began her creative writing career when she was in her late 20s.

"I took an adult education class, became completely hooked and kept on taking classes in creative writing," she said. "My first short story was published in 1981. It was the 10th short story I'd written.

"Now I try to stay at home and write as much as I can. I love to teach or maybe I just like to stand up and hear myself talk. But I take teaching seriously and write a lot of comments on student papers and that doesn't leave much time for my writing," she said.

If you enjoy writers like Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve, you'll like Lipman. Give it a try.

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