Thursday, July 16, 2009

ISABEL'S BED by ELINOR LIPMAN

Elinor Lipman is one of the best practitioners of the art of domestic comedy currently writing. Her books are light, not lite; they're funny and witty, but they also have a sting. They're beautifully written in a simple, clean style, and the characters have a depth of personality that makes them engaging and believable, if not necessarily always likeable. Elinor Lipman's books go down easy, but at the same time they offer genuine insight into human nature and the indomitability of the human spirit.

As Isabel's Bed opens, heroine and narrator Harriet Mahoney has just been dumped by Kenny, her "balding, malcontent boyfriend of twelve years, who said we'd get married if I conceived his child or when he felt like it." Bad enough that Harriet's been dumped, even worse that they've been sharing an apartment in New York, notoriously one of the toughest housing markets in the world, but--worst of all--he's left her to marry someone. A younger--Harriet is forty-one--someone. So, turning his slap in the face into a knife in her back, it's not that Kenny didn't want to get married...it's that he didn't want to marry Harriet.

Ouch.

Harriet, a secretary and would-be writer, does what any intellectual New Yorker would do: she turns to the personal ads in the New York Review of Books, for, as she overheard one woman say another on the subway one day, "There are no guarantees in this world, but chances are that people who take out ads in the New York Review of Books aren't idiots or crooks." Lo and behold, she finds something, an invitation for a writer to share a Cape retreat. "Write me about your spectacular self," the ad says.

And so Harriet does, is hired, and rents a car to make the drive from Manhattan to Cape Cod. There she meets Isabel Krug, a woman whom Harriet has never heard of but who, apparently, achieved some degree of notoriety as the "other woman" in a tabloid murder extravaganza several years earlier. Isabel, it seems, wants Harriet to write her life story.

Isabel Krug is bigger than life. She's bosomy and loud. She embraces and amplifies that which she lacks--she lives in a luxurious ultra-modern house fitted out with a state-of-the-art modern kitchen but is helpless even to open a can of soup, she owns several fabulous cars but doesn't drive--while offering life lessons to all around her (who often, admittedly, roll their eyes while secretly taking her advice). And, as often happens when a seemingly dull nobody is taken under the wing of an Auntie Mame, Harriet blossoms. She comes into her own and, more importantly, truly sees Kenny for what he is and realizes how little she's lost (and how much she's gained).

Isabel's Bed is a beatiful gem of a novel, which gives us beautiful writing, a compelling story, and engaging characters. Elinor Lipman is as good and as insightful into the human condition as her more well-known contemporaries, such as Anne Tyler and Anita Shreve. Perhaps some day she'll share their readership.

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