If life were a popcorn movie, we would spend the downturn, each of us, in a Manhattan penthouse just off Fifth Avenue and have for company a handful of people we loved who loved us back. We’d be broke, but not perilously so, and what romance there was would be of the nouveau-screwball variety. There would be laughter. Also: many cupcakes.
Such is the shabby-chic fantasia of Elinor Lipman’s 10th novel, “The View From Penthouse B,” whose heroine, a 50-ish widow, can’t seem to find her way back to life among the living. “I’d already had what most people ask from life: a husband, a marriage with music, an apartment with a view of the Hudson River,” Gwen explains, narrating the tale.
But nearly two years into Gwen’s prim and timid widowhood, a reawakening is in order. Lipman has plucked her out of the Upper West Side, where she lived in a rent-controlled apartment with her schoolteacher husband, and plunked her down in the luxury digs of her older sister Margot, who’s husbandless by choice. Charles, Margot’s gynecologist ex, humiliated her in spectacular fashion with a betrayal that became a tabloid scandal: Instead of artificially inseminating his patients, he had sex with them himself.
Margot’s fury lingers as stubbornly as Gwen’s bereavement, and both women are more than a little adrift. Gwen’s freelance writing career has stalled, and Margot, who hadn’t had a career, saw the money she won in her divorce — the chunk left over after she bought the penthouse — vanish in Bernie Madoff’s care.
But grim is merely the backstory. Lipman’s milieu is gentle comedy, and her novels gravitate toward optimism: They’re mischievous, sometimes wry, but hopeful of romance and redemption even in an emotionally messy world. So Lipman gives Gwen and Margot a loyal 20-something roommate, Anthony, who bakes for them and makes them laugh. And when the repellently narcissistic Charles, sprung from prison, moves in downstairs, it’s not long before he joins the menagerie. Prodded by the others, Gwen edges toward dating, online and otherwise.
What makes “The View From Penthouse B” slightly voyeuristic reading for any Lipman fan is the knowledge that she, like her heroine, became a widow a few years ago, and she, too, now lives in New York, after a childhood in Lowell and decades in Western Massachusetts. Scanning the text for clues — how is she doing? — is almost a given.
Three years ago, in The New York Times’s Modern Love column, Lipman wrote wrenchingly of the demise of her husband, Robert Austin, a radiologist, from frontotemporal dementia, which took his mind over the course of several years before it took his life. That essay, which ran just six months after his death, appears in slightly softened form in “I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays,” Lipman’s fine new collection, where it is still entirely capable of ripping the reader’s heart out.
In the context of the collection’s more than 30 brief pieces, many of which first appeared in The Boston Globe, that intimate story inadvertently exposes Lipman’s tremendous skill as a mostly comic essayist. To see, against the timeline of illness she gives there, what she was writing when, and how she was writing it, is to gain a whole new understanding of her craft and of the palette from which she creates.
In the charming account of how her first novel, “Then She Found Me,” from 1990, eventually became a 2007 Helen Hunt movie, our glimpse of the premiere, when her husband was already sick, is sweetly glamorous. The epilogue to another essay is a Sarah Jessica Parker anecdote from that premiere. In it, a single, vaguely anxious phrase — “wondering where my husband and son had gone” — suggests how very sparingly Lipman uses dark colors in the cheerful scenes she paints, and how artfully she renders them.
In both her fiction and her nonfiction, Lipman’s acuity as a social observer makes her voice seem to belong to a wise and funny friend. That’s true in “The View From Penthouse B,” although the author seems to have set herself a narrative challenge that she cannot meet: As heroines go, Gwen is a bit of a mouse. We care about her — Lipman makes sure of that — and we cheer her on, but perpetual mourning has made her rather bland. That’s Gwen’s problem, and she knows it, but it’s problematic for us as well.
There are threads, too, that the novel simply drops, such as Margot’s anti-Madoff crusading — a plotline that seems to have gotten too tangled in tragedy with the real-life suicide of the financier’s son — or never explores, such as the greed of Madoff investors, which makes it tough to feel sorry for Margot in the first place. And there are glossed-over bits that don’t make psychological sense, much the way there’s never a truly ugly breakup in a Nora Ephron movie. For all that, though, the novel is comfortably diverting fun. It’s not Lipman at the top of her game, but she is mostly on her game.
The final essay in “I Can’t Complain” is partly about the evolution of “The View From Penthouse B,” including an account of the author’s own underwhelming forays into online dating: “And there was the actor who’d been the sixth husband of one of the stars of ‘The Golden Girls,’ ” she reports. But Lipman makes clear that her response to grief was not the same as her heroine’s. “Unlike Gwen,” she tells us, “I didn’t mope around.”
I CAN’T COMPLAIN:
(All Too) Personal Essays
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 161 pp., illustrated, $20
Glad to hear it.