'The Family Man' by Elinor Lipman

The Family Man

A Novel

Elinor Lipman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt:

306 pp., $25

Elinor Lipman's social satire is Larry David without the high-pitched whine. Her novels have the clean, airy lines of P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson. Her irony is not mean, not at the expense of any particular race, creed or color. Things get messy, but the promise of resolution allows for a beautiful circulation in her writing -- a reader doesn't feel indignant; body parts do not clench. No one is trying to manipulate you into feeling something.

It's hard (even annoying) to have to put her novels, including this latest, "The Family Man," down. You want to hang around her characters. Here, that means Henry, the gay, retired lawyer whose life has suddenly gotten complicated. Decades ago, after a brief marriage to Denise (who could be on "Seinfeld," she's that irritating), Henry did not fight for custody of his stepdaughter, Thalia, now 29. His retreat from her life has been his greatest regret. Thalia is Gigi: lively, open, with a soft spot for vintage clothing. She's trying to make it as an actress in New York, working as a coat check girl when Henry invites her back into his life. She comes to live in the three-room maisonette beneath Henry's stylish Upper West Side townhouse. It's a delightful relationship, and Lipman's dialogue is snappy and smart -- it's not easy to write repartee that does not veer into sitcom (the default dialogue in so many books).

Perhaps Lipman's humor is so suited to the written word because her characters are readers -- so much current comedy features characters who don't seem particularly engaged with anything besides themselves. They float in a sterile context, an anticulture, a negative wasteland of inhuman, disembodied interactions, part Kafka and part "South Park." There but for the grace of God, my grandmother used to say, go I.

People live in Lipman's Manhattan. It's the Manhattan of Eloise and the great cartoons of the New Yorker. They are loyal to H&H Bagels or Zabar's or that place down the street that has great Indian food. Real estate looms large -- Denise is gripping tightly to the six-bedroom Park Avenue apartment her stepsons want to take away from her, Henry's roomy townhouse is a safe haven for Thalia -- but so do friendships. Love is a miracle. These are the people who made us homesick after 9/11. It's the New York worth waxing nostalgic over.

Lipman's characters face serious issues (usually a bad mother lurks in the corners of her books). They are lonely, they don't know how to tell their 80-year-old mother that they are gay, their careers didn't turn out the way they planned, for example. But almost all of them have sterling hearts, if not the best judgment. In "The Family Man," Lipman winds her people up in a zany plot, complete with paparazzi and shady business and celebrity shenanigans.

There's a scene in which Todd, Henry's new lover, is exposing Henry to cheap food. They're having dinner at the Chirping Chicken while Todd screws up his courage to tell his mother he's gay. The couple at the next table (she's pregnant) get involved in the conversation. "And you're afraid she won't like this lovely gentleman?" asks the woman. "It's not him. It's me. She thinks I'm straight," comes the reply. "No, she doesn't," says the woman. "We're not married," says her companion. "Try telling that to a mother." In Lipman's world, everybody's got problems. They are hardly ever insurmountable.

Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.


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