Book review: On Turpentine Lane and Good Riddance

Elinor Lipman is a clever writer, who offers accessible entertainment, but she also asks her own questions about what the purpose of literature might be


'On Turpentine Lane' and 'Good Riddance' by Elinor Lipman (Lightning Books, £8.99)

In the “obligatory” biographical section of her elegantly curated website, Elinor Lipman mentions that she “married Robert Austin, a college blind date, in 1975 and would have taken his last name if [she’d] known what was ahead, comedy-of-manners wise.”

It’s a typical Lipman moment, a snappily executed sentence balancing feminist assertion and traditional values, and throwing in a dash of brio through the invited comparison with Jane Austen, her greatest forebear as a romantic novelist.

Lipman worked in public relations from 1972 to 1981, before beginning a successful career as a columnist and a writer of fiction. Her first novel, Then She Found Me, was published in 1990 and adapted for the cinema 18 years later.

The Inn at Lake Devine (1998) explores the themes of antisemitism and intermarriage from the perspective of a young Jewish woman growing up in America in the 1960s.

Robert Austin died in 2009, aged 60. Lipman has written movingly about both the experience of widowhood and her return to the world of dating and romantic relationships. On Turpentine Lane and Good Riddance, first published in America in, respectively, 2017 and 2018, both focus on women in their 20s and 30s, yet a consciousness of the fragility of life and relationships is woven into their narrative fabric.

Of the two novels, On Turpentine Lane is the more conventional. Faith Frankel, a fundraiser at a posh day-school, buys a house in the eponymous street, with the expectation of co-habiting with her fiancé Stuart. It’s no spoiler to say that Stuart quickly shows himself to be one of the most withholding man-children in creation, as everyone apart from Faith herself can clearly see.

The central plot-strand involves Faith’s journey from this situation to a more satisfying emotional economy. Along the way, there are a number of diverting sub-plots. A donation misfires, threatening Faith with dismissal for embezzlement. There is a murder-mystery associated with the house. Faith’s father Henry leaves his wife and sets himself up as an artist, making popular, personalised versions of Chagall paintings — perhaps the novel’s funniest touch.

These and other sidedishes are entertaining but perhaps not especially well-integrated into the novel’s design. The exception is the story of Faith’s parents. Stuart’s exaggerated narcissism parallels aspects of Henry’s behaviour, and Faith’s mother Nancy has an emotional path to tread not unlike her daughter’s.

Yet, whereas Faith’s trajectory follows a line laid down by traditional romantic fiction, Nancy is faced with something altogether less comforting when it comes to a reckoning with her wayward spouse.

Good Riddance is a more focused piece of work. It is also, in the words of one of its characters, “a bit meta”. Once again, we start with a heroine and a problematic relationship: Daphne Maritch is recently divorced from the philandering Holden Phillips IV, who seduced and married her for the sole purpose of securing an inheritance.

But, in a twist on traditional romance themes, Daphne’s way forward mainly involves asserting control over the narrative of her own and her
family’s history. A memento left to Daphne by her recently deceased mother falls into the hands of an inquisitive neighbour, with hilarious but also profound and disturbing ramifications for Daphne’s understanding of her family and her own identity.

There’s a happy ending, but it’s not one that entirely conforms to the conventions of the comedy of manners.

Elinor Lipman may set herself up for consideration as “the Jane Austen of modern New York” but I’m not convinced the comparison is altogether helpful.

She is a clever writer, who offers accessible entertainment, but she also asks her own questions about what the purpose of literature might be.

Alun David is a freelance reviewer

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