Elinor Lipman's latest is another in a long line of great comedy-of-manner novels she's written. Maybe not quite as good as Lake Divine and Dearly Departed, but almost at that level.
There's something unique in Lipman's writing that I've tried to figure out in all ten of her novels. Her secondary characters are written as brilliantly as her main characters. I don't know how she does it - I guess that's why I'm a reader and not a writer - but maybe it's her wonderful dialogue. I'm left after reading her novels with the - unacted on, of course - urge to call her and ask her to write another novel, using the same characters, taking the storyline further. As all her novels are "stand-alones", it's clear she considers each one finished at the end.
She is a worthy successor to the late, great Laurie Colwin.
If you haven't yet discovered Elinor Lipman, lucky you - what a treat you have in store. The Family Man has certain similarities with her masterpiece, Then She Found Me (made into a terrible film by Helen Hunt) and is none the worse for that. Henry Archer, retired, divorced, lonely and gay, gets in touch with his newly-widowed ex-wife to offer his condolences, and finds his world turned upside down. He is reconciled with Thalia, the step-daughter he hasn't seen for 25 years, and gradually finds his lonely and self-contained world opening up. I found myself reading more and more slowly as I got to the end as I didn't want the story to finish. Warm-hearted, touching, funny and at times sad - what more could you ask from a novel?
In this Austen-esque comedy of manners, filled with a bubbly assortment of likeable characters, The Family Man focuses on the middle-aged lawyer Henry Archer who finds himself caught up in a new kind of parenting situation that seems to be totally beyond control. After sending a letter of condolence to his ex-wife Denise, after her new husband suddenly dies of a heart attack, Henry doesn't realize that he's surreptitiously thrown Denise a lifeline. Finally catching up after several years, their meeting is full of recriminations even as Henry continues to wonder why he'd been young and selfish when he'd suddenly relinquished his rights as a parent. Adding to Henry's complicated retirement is Thalia, the coat-check girl who works at his local hair salon and who turns out to be his long-lost step daughter, and who innocently became the collateral damage in Henry's rather messy divorce from Denise. Thalia, an aspiring actress, appears well adjusted and content, but as the two pore their heart out to one another over a glass of wine (without Denise's knowledge), Thalia unfurls her secret plan to enter in to type of faux engagement current horror luminary and budding young movie star Leif Dumont.
Leif who aches to break into the big time, but so does Thalia, who will stop at nothing to use this as a way to get exposure. Determined to act like she's in love, Leif is trying to do his best to reciprocate in a way that repackages him as a desirable and attractive actor. Henry is initially supportive of Thalia's plan and glad officially re-meet with Thalia, but he chooses keeps the bourgeoning friendship with his neglected and estranged daughter from Denise who is still in the bad books for mortally offending everyone with thoughtless remarks at the funeral of her husband. While Denise whines about being left with nothing, she hooks Henry up with lovable Todd who eventually becomes the aging lawyer's voice of reason in his urbane and somewhat genteel topsy-turvy life.
Meanwhile, Lipman infects her novel with a jumble of different personalities, all proving to be Henry's nemesis and threatening his new role as dissembler, withholder, and covert social operator. Although Henry wants to make good in the promises he has made to himself with respect to the good deeds of early retirement, his new step-daughter - who suddenly ensconces herself in his maisonette apartment - threatens to become far too much of a distraction and is in danger of giving him his fair share of headaches.
Cleverly lampooning the New Yorkers, Lipman's novel bursts with energy and quirky characters as Henry unexpectedly finds true love and a soul mate in Todd who still hasn't told Lillian, his octogenarian mother that he's g*y. Packed with silly situations, clichéd but lovable characters, and incidences that almost defy logic, I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Still, Lipman's joke-fuelled dialogue propels the story lighting along and her pop-culture references give the story a contemporary feel. This is a witty, sly and self-deprecatory adventure into the world of a lawyer cum diplomat who finds love in a new kind of family. Ultimately, the novel's penchant for the innocent and the author's manner of humanizing even the most bizarre incidences make The Family Man a celebration the absurdities of the human condition and the willingness to endure even the most bizarre of circumstances for the sake of those whom we love. Mike Leonard May 09.
I don't often reread book but I've just read this for the second time. Everything about it is a delight from the New York setting to the characters and dialogue. Henry and Todd are so lovely you want them as your best friends, and with these two in charge the plot careers merrily along, touching on some quite deep subjects - loneliness, abandonement, caring for elderly parents - without ever losing its light touch. Highly recommended for anyone who needs cheering up.