Elinor Lipman proves laughter is the best medicine To hear Elinor Lipman tell it, the colorful characters who populate her novels practically whisper their stories in her ear. She’s just the stenographer who gets it all down on paper. Take Ray Russo, the bad-guy-posing-as-savior in her new novel, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift. Ray meets surgical intern Alice Thrift while she’s working the plastic surgery rotation. He wants a nose job. She tells him he doesn’t need it. A match made in hospital? Hardly. A first-class con man, Ray lies, cheats and generally weasels his way into, well, if not Alice’s heart, then at least her life. He almost managed to worm his way into Lipman’s heart as well. “I grew fond of him,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “But the framework of the book was a cautionary tale. He helped me out by just showing his true colors at an opportune time.” The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is vintage Elinor Lipman a sharply incisive, sparkling tale with a cast of lovable eccentrics. The serious, self-esteem-challenged Alice plans to use her surgical skills to repair birth defects and deformities in Third World countries. But cursed with the bedside manner of an ice cube tray, she is in danger of being dismissed from her internship.
“It would help me in all the arenas of my life if I were a touch more gregarious,” Alice says in typically understated fashion.
Ray is extroverted enough for the both of them and manages to convince Alice that he’s the one for her. The proprietor of First-Prize Fudge, he often hits the road to peddle his candy, proving himself to be a good salesman. Neither handsome nor suave, he convinces Alice to give him a chance in spite of herself. His gratingly talkative, self-help-guru manner (“Hey,” he admonishes Alice when she berates her medical skills, “that’s stinkin’ thinkin’!”) seems to her to be the perfect antidote to her own reticence.
“I don’t have to be charming or interesting around him,” she explains to a friend who doesn’t quite grasp Ray’s appeal. “He seems happy to keep the conversation rolling.” That a Harvard educated, no-nonsense woman like Alice would fall for such an oddball may seem questionable, but it rang true to Lipman. “You see it all the time,” she said. “You meet a wonderful woman and then you meet her husband and think What?'” Besides, she reasons, who wants to read about characters who always make the safe, expected choices? “One doesn’t have to describe in a novel what the collective sensibility of women is,” Lipman said. “I wanted to take one woman and make her experience believable. It’s not what you’d prescribe for the whole world.” In fact, there is nothing much about Alice Thrift that’s expected. For starters, few novels actually give away the ending in the first chapter. Lipman makes it no secret that the union between salesman Ray and plastic surgeon Alice lasts about as long as a shot of Botox. It’s a surprisingly effective choice that will keep readers flipping pages as they try to understand how this painfully odd couple ever came to be.
Also unexpected is Lipman’s effortless depiction of the harrowing, coffee-fueled existence of medical residents. She paints a dead-on portrait of hospital culture and casually tosses around alien terms such as pneumothorax and hepatic artery. One could call it the result of a unique type of painstaking research. Lipman’s husband is a doctor, and she lived through his early years in the medical profession.
“We’ve been dating since his third week of med school,” she said. “I found that part of writing the book was just imagination, and then my husband read every word. I also talked to one of his partners, who had a very miserable surgical internship.” Lipman’s own career path didn’t veer toward fiction until she enrolled in a writing workshop in her late 20s. Since then, she’s written eight novels, numerous short stories and, occasionally, essays. She and her husband live in Northampton, Massachusetts, while their 21-year-old son a good writer in his own right, according to Lipman attends college in New York City.
Quietly thoughtful when discussing her work, Lipman seems to relish talking about her characters and speculating on where they are now. In fact, during a recent trip to Boston, she found herself thinking of Alice as she walked past a Filene’s Basement store. It reminded Lipman of one of her favorite scenes in the book, when Alice tries on wedding dresses. “I actually got a little misty-eyed!” she said. “I thought, What is wrong with me?’ But you’re always living with your characters.” Lipman’s newest novel is just as reliably hilarious as her previous books, including The Dearly Departed, Isabel’s Bed and The Inn at Lake Devine. With these books, Lipman has carved out a distinctive niche in the romantic comedy genre. It’s a term that once made her wince but that she now believes is not necessarily synonymous with trivial. Funny novels can still be substantial and enlightening, as her newest book proves.
While Lipman’s prose shines with wit, she demurs when asked if she’s funny off the page as well. “I think my friends would say yes,” she said. “At the very least, good-natured; at the most, funny on occasion. I try.” Such a modest answer Alice would be proud.
Amy Scribner is a writer in Washington, D.C.