Family & Friends

What If the Sex & the City Group Aged 20 Years?

Most readers have heard of Nora Roberts, but few have heard of Elinor Lipman, a fact that comes in quite handy if you happen to work in a public library.

When a patron asks me to recommend a good book, I’ll ask, “Have you read My Latest Grievance?

The answer is usually no.

I’ll find it on the shelf, she’ll check it out, smiling, and I’ll have preserved my reputation as that amazing librarian who can always be counted on to conjure up just the right read.

If Grievance isn’t available, I can go with Then She Found Me—or any one of Lipman‘s 10 witty and engaging novels. All are literate and funny, wise but never earnest, feminine to the core, but too sharply observed to be mere “chick lit.“ And while her female protagonists are often seeking love, and her stories tend to have happy endings, Lipman’s characters are nuanced and complicated, and she doesn’t hesitate to tackle issues like racism and prejudice.

Lipman’s latest book, I Can’t Complain, isn’t a novel, though, but a collection of essays written over the past two decades for venues from The Boston Globe and Good Housekeeping to Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex. (Which, on the basis of that title and Lipman’s contribution, now tops my own “to read” list.)

Not everyone who can write a good novel is also a gifted nonfiction writer, but I Can’t Complain is a winner. Addressing a wide variety of topics, from sex education and martial communication to growing up Jewish in an Italian neighborhood and the allure of Sex & the City, Lipman is smart, sincere, and very entertaining.

Lipman, a Sex & the City fan, is a bit like Carrie Bradshaw herself; a successful writer who confides in her readers about her life, and is fascinated by people and what makes them tick. But at 62, she’s an older and wiser Carrie Bradshaw in another stage of life, no longer in pursuit of a great love, but enjoying married life and motherhood, as well as coping with the inevitable losses that life brings.

The give and take of married life provides Lipman with plenty of material, inspiring essays about the pursuit of a good night’s sleep when your mate’s sleep habits differ greatly from your own, living with a clean freak, and some interesting observations about the secrets of marital longevity. Lipman celebrates her union, but notes that it is not without stresses. (When Hubby kvetches about the way she’s prepared a gourmet meal, Lipman responds, “Maybe he’d prefer a nice can of Progresso after a hard day’s work.”)

Lipman also explores her own quirks and foibles, in essays about being a nice person who holds grudges, learning to turn down invitations, and her anxieties as an author.

Because I’m a writer myself, I particularly enjoyed Lipman’s essays about her craft. Writing without an outline. Defining your characters by their food choices. And then there’s the dream-come-true experience of Then She Found Me being made into a movie (in 2007) starring Helen Hunt, Bette Midler, Colin Firth, and Matthew Broderick. (Featuring Salman Rushdie as a gynecologist!)

Lipman’s essay about naming her characters was instructive. “Sometimes you name a character in order to reward a friend or punish an enemy,” she confides. For instance, she named the sexual predator in her novel The Dearly Departed after “the critic who gave a dear friend an ugly review in The New York Times.”

Not only is Lipman a good writer, she’s a loyal pal.

Complain also includes Seinfeldian riffs about human behavior. Lipman is particularly interested in couples. What exactly is going on, she wonders, when a woman who is always perfectly turned out has a husband who is a total slob. Doesn’t she notice that his clothing is spotted with food stains and his shoulders covered with dandruff? Or doesn’t she care?

And what about the serial killer who managed to keep his murderous little hobby a secret from his devoted wife over the course of a 27-year marriage? How on earth did he pull that off?

Motherhood inspires a number of essays, including my own favorite, “The Rosy Glow of the Backward Glance,” about the reassuring truth that the vast majority of a new mother’s deepest fears fail to materialize. Lipman contrasts her own concerns about her son’s development when she was a young mom with the way he actually turned out, with items like:

Then: Shy.

Now: Exceeds his 500 minutes per month cell phone plan.

Then: Watched too much TV, played too much Nintendo.

Now: Graduates from an Ivy League university.

It’s an essay that ought to be handed to every new mom as she leaves the hospital, her new bundle of joy (and inspiration for endless anxiety) in her arms.

The only complaint I have about I Can’t Complain is that it’s over too soon. Putting it down, you’ll feel as if you’ve made a new friend. In the future, you’ll be sure to watch for Lipman’s byline.

And if you haven’t yet read Lipman’s novels, you’ll probably head straight for the library.

Lipman, who has been compared to everyone from Jane Austen to Bart Simpson (including Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz), deserves a much larger audience. Despite her usefulness as a little-known gem to librarians everywhere, I hope that, with this terrific little book, she finds it.

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