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Review: Elinor Lipman's 'Family Man' is social satire at its best

Elinor Lipman's social satire is Larry David without the high-pitched whine. Her novels have the clean, airy lines of P.G. Wodehouse and E.F. Benson. It's hard (even annoying) to have to put down her novels, including The Family Man. You want to hang around her characters. Here, that means Henry, a gay, retired lawyer whose life has suddenly gotten complicated.

Decades ago, after a brief marriage to Denise (who could be on Seinfeld, she's that irritating), Henry did not fight for custody of his stepdaughter, Thalia, now 29. His retreat from her life has been his greatest regret. She's trying to make it as an actor in New York when Henry invites her back into his life. She comes to live in the three-room maisonette beneath Henry's stylish Upper West Side townhouse. It's a delightful relationship, and Lipman's dialogue is snappy and smart — it's not easy to write repartee that does not veer into sitcom (the default dialogue in so many books).

People live in Lipman's Manhattan. It's the Manhattan of Eloise and the great cartoons of the New Yorker. They are loyal to H&H Bagels or Zabar's or that place down the street that has great Indian food. Real estate looms large, but so do friendships. Love is a miracle.

Lipman's characters face serious issues: They are lonely, they don't know how to tell their 80-year-old mother that they are gay, their careers didn't turn out as they planned. But most of them have sterling hearts, if not the best judgment.

There's a scene in which Henry and Todd, his new lover, are having dinner while Todd screws up his courage to tell his mother he's gay. The couple at the next table (she's pregnant) get involved in the conversation. "And you're afraid she won't like this lovely gentleman?" asks the woman. "It's not him. It's me. She thinks I'm straight," comes the reply. "No, she doesn't," says the woman. "We're not married," says her companion. "Try telling that to a mother." In Lipman's world, everybody's got problems. They are hardly ever insurmountable.

The Family Man

By Elinor

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 306 pages, $25

Review: Elinor Lipman's 'Family Man' is social satire at its best 06/26/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 26, 2009 5:30pm]
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