Not wrinkle-free

The multitude of characters, although interesting, renders Rebecca Miller's narrative a bit diffuse.

Pippa Lee book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Pippa Lee book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Private Lives of Pippa Lee By Rebecca Miller Farrar, Straus and Giroux 239 pages; $23 The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is the latest effort of Rebecca Miller. Daughter of Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, Miller is an accomplished artist - among other successes, she is the director of the Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize winner and New York Times acclaimed film Personal Velocity, which is based on her short-story collection of the same name. The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is based on a simple premise. At 50-something, Pippa finds herself transplanted, at the behest of her 80-year-old husband, to a retirement community nicknamed Wrinkle Village. For Pippa, the couple's shift in location brings about a shift in self. The book is intended to not only paint a picture of her metamorphosis, it is also intended to give us an in-depth portrait of a woman who is - on the surface, at least - perfect. These two story lines are potentially powerful. Further, the back-story of Pippa's difficult childhood and adolescence - the circumstances that made her yearn for and create a stable home life - could lend gravity to the present-day story of Pippa's reckoning with her elderly husband's age as well as her own and the life review that typically comes along with it. But the multitude of characters, although an inherently interesting and engaging cast, renders the narrative a bit diffuse. What The Private Lives of Pippa Lee does continually move toward, and shy away from, is the issue of mothers and daughters. We get a close-up shot of Grace, Pippa's daughter, and we learn about their troubled relationship. At the end of the novel, the narrator asserts about Grace, "Poor girl, she didn't know what sickness had been passed to her through the women in her family. Mother to daughter in a line as long as Pippa had lived, and maybe further, maybe past Grandma Sally, to Sally's mother, and her mother before her; the chain of misunderstandings and adjustments, each daughter trying to make up for her mother's lacks and getting it wrong the opposite way." While we understand that this is at the heart of Pippa's story, this compelling theme is only partially illuminated and explored. The reader is left intrigued and wanting more. Miller's writing is at its best when she brushes up against the mother-daughter material, particularly Pippa's relationship with her mother. The prose suddenly becomes lean and tight, the story suddenly feels real, and Pippa's emotional truth comes into focus. When Miller manages to address the mother-daughter theme in an indirect manner, the novel has glimmerings of genius and the writing is beautiful, "I was going to find that pregnant girl with the flaxen hair... and I was going to save her life. I would track her down in her filthy squat and swoop in like a commando, excise her from her perverted existence, buy her a square meal, take her home to Olla and Jim. We would all live together, the five of us, a family. Her child would be fair, with violet eyes and a saintly disposition." At these times, Pippa's breathless flights of fancy have weight and resonance. We understand what Pippa wants on a deep emotional level, at the very core of herself. Conversely, whenever the narrator drifts away from this material - and she does spend a lot of time drifting - the reader's interest floats as well. The reader ends up with scattered snapshots rather than a full portrait. We get glimpses of Pippa's mother, Pippa's father, Pippa's children - and all seem to be arranged to help the reader look beyond the picture-perfect surface of present-day Pippa Lee, all are intended to help us understand Pippa, to plumb the depths of her psychology. What the reader walks away with, though, is a feeling of having become acquainted with a sequence of events in a woman's life rather than the woman herself. It will be interesting to see how this novel translates into film. Currently in post-production, The Private Lives of Pippa Lee has an all-star cast including Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robin Wright Penn and Julianne Moore. Perhaps seeing a flesh-and-blood ensemble will help us see Pippa more fully.