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I’ve recently noticed my own aversion to hour-long television dramas—Mad Men and Tudors excluded, of course. These days I’m more prone to watch a well-written, witty half-hour sitcom than an intense drama that requires faithful weekly viewing to keep up with characters’ lives. This is a big shift for me, and I’m finally beginning to understand why so many people choose lighter, less depressing types of material when reading for pleasure. Now, I still take my books pretty dark, but every once in a while I need a bit of a break from dysfunctional families, grief, unrequited love, and wasted potential. Every once in a while I’d prefer a smart, witty sitcom of a book. Thankfully, there is Elinor Lipman.
Lipman’s books are light, but not fluffy. They are full of wit and irony, but not at anyone’s expense. Her novels present a world that is tricky, but not doomed. Characters’ bad choices are not irreparable. Life can be pretty charmed if one is willing to recognize it as such. Lipman’s novels are often compared to Jane Austen’s. As a reader, you know how things are going to turn out, but the exceptional writing, smart dialogue, and flawed, but loveable, characters keep you turning the pages. When pressed to categorize her own writing, Lipman describes her novels as “comedies of manners for intelligent adults.” Her novels are like romantic comedy films; the genius of them is that they appear effortless, light, maybe even a touch frivolous. In reality, they are tightly woven stories with spot-on dialogue and loveable, if offbeat and quirky, characters.
I recently finished her most recent novel, The Family Man . The premise alone sounds pretty cinematic. Gay lawyer, Henry Archer, receives a frantic phone call from his newly widowed ex-wife, Denise, which paves the way for a reconciliation with his stepdaughter, Thalia. An aspiring actress, Thalia enlists Henry’s legal advice before accepting a job posing as the girlfriend of a b-grade sitcom star. And, that’s just the beginning of this convoluted, comedy-of-errors plot. The story is tidy, the tone is romantic and hopeful, and the plot is fun, but not frenzied. It’s a perfect romantic comedy, or maybe I should say sitcom.