I must have read Isabel’s Bed four times. I remember that it was my introduction to Elinor Lipman and I think it remains my favorite of her books, but I hadn’t read it in a while. Having done so, I can safely report that it was as delightful as ever.
Lipman’s books walk a fine line. Now that I think of it, they remind me of another current obsession, Glee. Like the TV series, they dance in and out of various modes of humor while delivering a satisfyingly humane result. There is satire, there is farce, there is observational humor, there is even the occasional flash of pathos. Oh, yes, and romance. It is true that in Isabel’s Bed nobody lines up and belts out a cheesy 70’s rock anthem. But there is some dancing cheek to cheek. And characters break down stereotypes, take risks, grow, reap the rewards.
Our narrator is Harriet Mahoney, a 41-year-old writer who has left New York with her tail between her legs after being dumped by her boyfriend of 12 years, Kenny Grossman. Kenny makes bagels. Kenny doesn’t understand Harriet’s drive to write, or indeed much else about her. On the other hand, it’s pretty obvious that Harriet is walking around wearing a “Kick Me” sign on her back. Lipman’s description of Harriet’s favorite outfit (stirrup pants and a long Peruvian sweater: the book dates from 1995) pretty much says it all.
So Harriet answers an ad for a ghost writer in the New York Review of Books, and ends up as part of a startling menage on Cape Cod. The center of the wheel is Isabel Krug, a blonde life force in velours sweats, who needs help writing her memoir. Turns out her claim to fame is having been in bed with stuffy Greenwich money man Guy Van Vleet on the night when his wife shot him. In casting the movie, one would have to cast Dolly Parton of 20 years ago as Isabel. (I allow myself infinite chronological leeway in fantasy casting.) I won’t say anything about the male characters. Suffice it to say, there are some. Cute ones. You figure out the rest.