Elinor Lipman is one of my favorite authors, but the problem is that I’ve read all of her books. Sometimes I eye them on the book shelf and mentally test myself — am I ready to reread this one or that one? What good news, then, to find that I had not read The Family Man. And I must say that I found it entirely delightful.
Henry Archer is a kind, appealing, faintly anxious gay man whose conscientious good manners get him into a world of trouble. The problem is that he once rashly married a woman of titanic energy and egotism. She’s a familiar avatar in Lipman’s fiction, the woman whose sheer nerve appalls and fascinates. In The Family Man, this creature, Denise, skews slightly unpleasant, and I admire beyond words Lipman’s ability to leave her annoying but ultimately benevolent. And, of course, Denise is hilariously funny. I especially enjoyed her aggrieved rants into Henry’s answering machine.
The problem is that Denise has been recently widowed and her stepsons intend to kick her out of her massive Park Avenue apartment. (Shades of the more recent Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmans of Westport.) And because Henry is a good egg, he doesn’t quite have the chutzpah to tell his former wife to take a hike. Besides, he has recently reconnected with her daughter Thalia, whom he adored while he and Denise were married. He feels guilty for leaving Thalia in the lurch when he divorced Denise. The now-grown Thalia, a 28-year-old actress, bears no resentment, though, and is quite delighted to embrace Henry as a father. A father with a lovely town house on 75th Street, and a budding romance of his own.
For Lipman, families are miraculous entities, formed as much by volition as by blood ties. Henry’s romance with the effervescent Todd is one of the great charms of this book — and Lipman’s strong suit has always been charm. Thalia embarks on a romance of her own, and even Denise ends up more or less settled. Tolerance, kindness, and an unlimited supply of good coffee seem to be what promotes affiliation in Lipman-world. Sounds good to me.