Life & Culture

The unknown best seller

Elinor Lipman's books are popular in her native US, but hardly known over here. That's all set to change.


This is the third time I’ve interviewed somebody who shares my surname,” I mention to novelist Elinor Lipman when we speak over Skype; our face-to-face encounter having been curtailed by coronavirus. We go through the others — Maureen, who it turns out tried to option Elinor’s first novel, and the crime writer Laura Lippman, whose agent is a friend of hers.

Born and raised in Massachusetts, this Lipman is no relation of mine, although she’d certainly make for great company round the dinner table. The author of 12 bestselling books in America, she is less well known this side of the Atlantic, but those familiar with her oeuvre lap up her comic tales of men and women finding themselves in bizarre, comic or bittersweet situations. An early editor, she says, described her work “as romantic comedy for intelligent adults — I liked that a lot”.

Her two most recent novels, On Turpentine Lane, and Good Riddance were published here last month. Both fit that bill; the former is about a woman with an errant fiancé, who moves into a house with a surprising history; the latter a mystery about a woman, her mother and a high school yearbook.

Now 69, Lipman worked in news and PR before taking a creative writing course. Her debut, Then She Found Me, was published in 1990. The story of a women whose life is up-ended when her birth mother suddenly materialises, it was turned into a film directed by Helen Hunt and starring Colin Firth and Bette Midler.

The characters in that novel, and in much of her work, are Jewish or at least Jew-ish; the book she’s writing right now is about a Rachel Klein from New York.

The Jewishness is often incidental, rather than a central plot detail. “There’s a mildly funny story about this in On Turpentine Lane,” she explains. “The main character’s name was Faith Franklin originally. When I got about halfway, suddenly I wanted to use this expression, where the mother is talking about someone cheating, ‘you can’t dance at two weddings with one tuchus’. I said well how is she going to use that phrase? So I said, it’s going to be Faith Frankel, and that’s how she became Jewish.”

Lipman’s most Jewish book, and one that seems to be a fan favourite, is The Inn at Lake Devine. I read it years ago and remember it well; the plot hinges on Natalie Marx, who in the early 1960s finds a letter from a holiday resort to her mother, advising that “our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles”. Instead of ignoring the antisemitism, visiting the inn and befriending the owners becomes a preoccupation. Described by one reviewer as “Jane Austen in the Catskills”, its setting evokes Dirty Dancing, or the vacation episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

The story is based on Lipman’s own experience. “When I was about nine my mother had written away to several cottages and inns in New England. One place wrote back and said that they did have an opening in July, but the people who come here year after year and feel most comfortable are gentiles,” she recalls. “This was 1959 or 1960. My mother handed me the letter and I still remember the look on her face. It was as if to say ‘see what’s out there, see the world we live in’. I said, ‘well, can we go?’ She said no, ‘you don’t go where you’re not wanted’.”

A friend of hers calls the book “every Jewish girl’s favourite novel”, although that doesn’t mean Lipman always gets a good reception. In the novel, Natalie falls for the proprietor’s non-Jewish son. “I was going to book groups and getting asked ‘don’t you think you have an obligation to make Jews marry Jews’,” she says incredulously. “I would argue no, and wouldn’t I be allowed to write a novel about an antisemite, a murderer? She is not all of Jewish society, she’s one character who happened to fall in love with a man named Christopher.” She found such questions surprising. “I would leave thinking I can’t believe they just raked me over the coals for my fictional character marrying a non-Jew.”

As a child, as some of the only Jewish in a mostly Irish Catholic neighbourhood, she was aware of antisemitism. Broadly, they were accepted, “but at the same time I was very conscious of the fact that we were Jewish. A couple of boys — I still remember their names — called me a dirty Jew. But it was on the fringes of the neighbourhood.”

Lipman’s own Jewish identity is largely cultural nowadays, although it’s always been an important part of her life; her son complained as a child that he was the only one in the class who only celebrated Chanukah. Her late husband died in 2009; her “significant other”, Jonathan Greenberg, is Jewish, Liverpool born, but having lived in New York for 40 years. His family were JC subscribers, she tells me, so he thinks it is fantastic she is being interviewed for this paper.

“It really helps that Jonathan was raised in an Orthodox home. He’s not practicing, but it’s always good Shabbos on a Friday when we’re having dinner together, and I really like that.”

They met on after he wrote in his profile that he’d been reading a book of hers. They don’t live together although are currently cohabiting in her lakeside weekend home outside Manhattan.

We speak before the full coronavirus crisis unfolds in New York, when we are still trying to make sense of everything; Lipman is well-prepared for the long haul, although unfortunately her knitting remains in Manhattan, along with a pile of books she was planning to read, including Fleishman is in Trouble and Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success.

“I always have something going but there are about five babies that I would be knitting sweaters for,” she says. “I have some yarn but I don’t have the right needles and I don’t have the patterns. It’s a silly thing, I would call that a first world problem.”

Her next book opens with the aforementioned Rachel being fired from the Trump White House. While terrified by the coronavirus crisis — “it feels like the end of the world as we know it, I wonder if we’ll ever get out again” — that it could be Trump’s undoing is one bright spot. “We are all now Joe Biden fans and rooting for him.”

As a writer, she is hopeful that books will help people get through long periods of isolation. “My favourite compliment is when people say ‘my mother had been in the last stages of cancer and I gave her your book and I said could hear her laughing’,” she says. “I’ll never get a better compliment than when someone tells me they have used my books to get through a hard time.”

Meanwhile, we discuss the other Lipmans she has known. She recalls Maureen writing to her about optioning Then She Found Me. “Mid-letter she writes, ‘oh, I’ve just found out it’s been optioned’,” she recalls. “But she kept writing, she sent the letter anyway. No American actress would have done that. She would’ve been great in the film.”

Good Riddance and On Turpentine Lane are published by Lightning Books, price £8.99 each

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