Sunday, May 5, 2013

"The View from Penthouse B," by Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman has had a good year this year. In addition to her new collection of essays, "I Can't Complain," which I posted about last time, she has just published another 2013 title, the novel "The View from Penthouse B" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Written with her usual wry humor, this novel tells of recent middle-aged widow Gwen-Laura Schmidt's moving in with her recently divorced older sister, Margo, in her beautiful penthouse apartment. Margo's husband Charles is in prison; he is a doctor who was found to be practicing medical fraud of an unusual sort. In addition, Margo lost all her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme. So the sisters live in a beautiful Manhattan apartment but have little money. They take in a renter, young gay aspiring pastry chef Anthony, who becomes a kind of surrogate son and friend. The three of them create their own version of family, and are very involved with each other's lives. Other characters include Gwen and Margo's sister Betsy, Gwen's support group, Charles' recently discovered 19 year old son, Chaz; Anthony's sister Olivia; and a few others. A major plot line is whether and when Gwen will be ready to date again; her adventures into the dating world are humorously described. Another plot line is, upon his release from prison, Charles's courtship of his ex-wife Margo. There are several topical themes, including the Madoff issue, and the vicissitudes of middle-aged dating, especially meeting potential dates online. But finally the main topic is how we all need people who care about us, who have our backs, and how these people may be family members, romantic and/or marital partners, roommates, and/or friends; we all -- if we are lucky -- make our own versions of family, our own support systems. Lipman is perhaps not among the very top literary writers of this generation, but she reliably produces well written, engaging, entertaining, funny and touching books, novels that embody her deep sense of humanity couched in a humorous mode. Her books are generous gifts to her readers.

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