Meet Elinor Lipman

In her essays, the novelist’s family members are introduced with prose that makes you feel like you are sitting in a recliner in her living room.

ELINOR LIPMAN (photo credit: Michael Lionstar)
(photo credit: Michael Lionstar)
Reading a personal essay by Elinor Lipman is like reading a letter from an old and dear friend – honest, warm and chatty. If you are a fan of Lipman’s novels, which include The View from Penthouse B and The Inn at Lake Devine, perhaps she already is an old friend. If, however, you are not familiar with her writing, after reading I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, you might just find yourself running to Amazon to order a few of her novels.
Lipman’s essays are about topics as varied as her all-time favorite book (you’ll never guess it), growing up Jewish in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in Lowell, Massachusetts, and how she and her husband taught their son the facts of life. In the first section, “Meet the Family,” you meet her husband, Bob; her son, Ben; and her mother, father and sister; each one is introduced with prose that makes you feel like you are sitting in a recliner in Lipman’s living room.
Most of her essays are humorous, reminiscent of Erma Bombeck – they might even make you laugh out loud.
Yet she also expounds on somber stories of personal struggles such as caring for her elderly mother and her late husband’s tragic illness and death.
Although the stories about her son probably embarrassed him, according to Lipman he is so good-natured that he can handle having a mother who mines his life as part of her profession.
In “How to Get Religion,” Lipman describes the bat mitzva of the daughter of her good friend, Bobbie. Bobbie and her husband, Dan, Julia’s stepfather, are Jewish; Rick, Julia’s father, comes from a devout Irish Catholic family, and quite a few of his relatives attend the bat mitzva. Despite the interesting combination of family members at the party, everything goes beautifully, moving Lipman to write about the event. “Who could imagine such a day, with a peace and joy that were almost biblical – the stepfather dancing with the birth father’s sister; Jews with Catholics, Republicans with Democrats, labor lawyers with management.”
Like everything else in life, Lipman’s Jewishness is something to write about.
“I married a Jew with the same degree of religiosity as my own, which is to say negligible,” she writes. When a reader comments on a mixed marriage in one of her novels and asks, “Don’t you think you have a social responsibility to make Jews marry Jews?” Her answer is: “No, I do not. I have a social responsibility to tell an interesting tale.”
As a writer who has published 10 novels, Lipman does readings, speaks to book groups and is invited to write articles for newspapers. In the section titled “On Writing,” she shares writing secrets and anecdotes about her life as an author. In response to readers who ask her why there is so much food in her books, she admits: “I write novels and I cook dinner, and some days the edges blur.” She shares how she chooses names for her characters – she not only keeps a phone book and 20,001 Names for Baby on a shelf next to her computer, she also keeps her high school yearbook and her father’s 50thanniversary report (Harvard class of 1929) in reach.
In 2005-2006, Lipman was invited to write essays about marriage for a “Coupling” column in The Boston Globe magazine, and includes some of these essays in I Can’t Complain. In “I Want to Know,” she shares her enthusiasm for what she calls “grooming frankness” and her over-fascination with couples who do not seem to notice each other’s grooming mishaps. How can a wife not notice the dandruff resting on her husband’s collar? How can a “button-down” husband in gray pinstripes not notice that his wife is a spectacle? She investigates these questions with a combination of psychology and humor that entertains and amuses.
In other “Coupling” essays, she writes about Bob’s midlife fastidiousness, and why the common marital advice “never go to bed angry” is not always the best recommendation. As she freely describes what worked for her and Bob, she gives her readers some good advice about marriage, possibly without intending to do so. In “The Best Man” she talks about her 30th wedding anniversary in 2005, “a milestone I hesitate to announce due to the advanced age such marital longevity connotes.”
Nowadays, she reports, admitting to someone that you have been married for decades evokes a different type of response. “Strangers, upon hearing I have a grown son, often ask if Ben is our child jointly, or just mine. ‘From a first marriage?’ the rude person persists.
It’s not meant as a compliment, but I take it as one. They mean that hardly anyone they know has been married long enough both to conceive a child and attend his college graduation as an extant couple.”
The last section of the book, “This Is For You” is written with candor and acceptance. Lipman shares the sad story of the terrible illness that changed her husband and ultimately caused his death. In this essay, her upbeat attitude about life comes shining through her sadness and loss. She copes, she reflects on life, she finds things to be thankful for, and she continues to write and make her readers laugh.
By the time you finish reading I Can’t Complain, there is a good chance you will be sorry that the book has come to an end. Lipman has a way of making the reader want to settle into that reclining chair and stay for the afternoon.