Fiction and essays

Companionable volumes

“Upon meeting me,” novelist Elinor Lipman writes in her new book of nonfiction, “you’d find me pleasant, reasonable and without question, nice; nice follows me wherever I go.”

I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays would seem to support this assertion by the author of such delightful, intelligent novels as Then She Found Me, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel’s Bed, The Dearly Departed and The Family Man. Lipman does seem exceptionally nice in these short, engaging essays, even when she’s touting her ability to hold a grudge (“against bigots, anti-Semites, and bullies. … rudeness, cluelessness, knowingly seating me at a terrible table at a reception”) or lamenting the difficulties in blurbing someone else’s book (“My policy — no compromises and no dutiful blurbs” once ended a budding friendship with another writer, she says).

Lipman writes warmly about family and friends, particularly her son, Benjamin, to whom the book is dedicated. She examines the nuances of writing, including why food plays such a big part in her novels (“[D]oesn’t everyone characterize people by what they eat?”) and the importance of choosing the right name for fictional characters (“Anyone remember that sexual predator in The Dearly Departed? He has the same last name as the critic who gave a dear friend an ugly review in the New York Times”). Generously, she has only praise for the unfaithful-to-its-source movie adaptation of Then She Found Me, which finally came to fruition after 19 years thanks to the perseverance of actress Helen Hunt. (“Adore it. Have seen it five times and counting.”)

Such good-natured confessions run throughout the pieces in I Can’t Complain, which appeared previously in various publications and, for good reason, have been published in tandem with The View from Penthouse B. Lipman’s 10th novel, about two middle-aged sisters who move in together in a time of economic disaster, is a sly comedy of modern manners, but it is also slightly autobiographical, with an unusual and poignant strain of melancholy. Like her narrator, Gwen-Laura, the long-happily-married Lipman was widowed early and unexpectedly, and both women are tentatively trying to find footing in a brave new world.

For Gwen-Laura, the first step is moving in with her once-high-flying sister, Margot, who has been brought low by two shocking blows. Her successful gynecologist-husband, Charles, was convicted of fraud for operating a fertility clinic in which he was performing inseminations the old-fashioned way (sometimes on a couch in his office while his wife filled in as receptionist outside). An infuriated Margot got a hefty divorce settlement, which helped pay for the penthouse in a lovely Art Deco building in Greenwich Village, but soon lost the rest of her money in investments with Bernie Madoff.

“Though we call ourselves roommates,” Gwen-Laura says, “we are definitely more than that, something on the order of wartime trenchmates.”

Gwen-Laura is sure she will never find love or anything else that might rouse her to move from the penthouse (soon also home to personable, young Anthony, a gay Lehman Brothers casualty who rents a room). Her half-hearted dream is to open a matchmaking service for men and women seeking companionship and call it Chaste Dates. “So far, no one finds it either catchy or appealing,” she admits.

Gwen-Laura finally dips a toe into the online dating world, a baffling, hilarious process Lipman chronicles in her essays, too. On her “first date since the Nixon administration,” Lipman writes that “[t]he good news was interesting job and ‘Yale graduate.’ The bad news: he’d been a member of the class that made him seventy-five years old.”

The books make charming companions; they’re entertaining from beginning to end, and though Lipman and Gwen-Laura aren’t the same person, they do share one valuable quality: You would not be wrong if you called them “nice.” You’d happily share the spare room in your penthouse with either one and never lack for great stories.

Connie Ogle is The Miami Herald’s book editor.

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