- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 28, 2003

THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT

By Elinor Lipman

Random House, $23.95, 245 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAIRE HOPLEY

It’s easy to enjoy Elinor Lipman’s work. What’s not to like? She’s intelligent and savvy, an acute observer with a keen ear for smart talk. Yet she’s always on the side of the angels. Her heroines are nice women who somehow haven’t made it socially or romantically. Nor have things generally gone well for them professionally. But with a shazzam of authorial omnipotence, Ms. Lipman sees them right at the end.

Thus it is in Ms. Lipman’s eighth book, “The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.” Alice has a lot of good things in her life. She grew up in an affluent neighborhood in Princeton, N,J.; went to good schools; graduated from MIT, then, second in her class, from Harvard Medical School. Now she’s a first-year surgical intern in a Boston hospital. Right away she tells us that she married a patient.

“Ray Russo came to my department for a consultation. I said what I always said to a man seeking rhinoplasty: Your nose is noble, even majestic. It has character. It gives you character. Have you thought this through?” Ray doesn’t go through with the surgery, but he does make a play for Alice, and she’s vulnerable. “I wasn’t one of those attractive doctors with a stethoscope draped round her shoulders and a red silk blouse under her lab coat. I was an unhappy intern, plain and no-nonsense at best, and hoping to perform only noble procedures.”

It’s that kind of wishful thinking that gets Alice to the altar. She is a serious person — too serious. Having become a doctor via diligence in the classroom, she has not developed the gregariousness or confidence that makes friends. As for bedside manner, Alice is simply too truthful as well as too socially inept, to have one. Her stellar academic career notwithstanding, she has failed to impress as a future surgeon.

When she drops a retractor on the hand of a temperamental senior colleague while he’s removing a gall bladder, he gets hysterical, calls her “missy,” and demands her dismissal. She is put on two months probation, and plunged into ever greater depths of anxiety, convinced that even as her work improves, no one is noticing because she never blips their radar screens.

She’s wrong, especially about Ray, who realizes both that she is on her way to fat paychecks and that she lacks the street smarts to see through the likes of him: a 45-year-old fast talking fudge salesman, who tells her he is a recent widower. Though Alice spends long days at the hospital and most of the rest of the time sleeping, Ray woos her by sheer persistence and helpful services such as driving her to a funeral because she’s never had time to learn to drive, and showing up with subs and rotisserie chickens for supper. (She generally exists on cafeteria sandwiches and chocolate milk.)

Alice might have been saved from Ray’s clutches by wise advice from her roommate, Leo. Their arrangement is strictly business, but when Leo spots that wan Alice could fall prey to slime-ball Ray he tries to get her to see the light. But Alice manages to misinterpret Leo’s relationship with his girlfriend and moves to a hospital apartment. Here she meets a fellow intern, the flamboyant Sylvie Schwartz. Sylvie also befriends Alice, and also sees that Ray is on the make, but again, Alice short-circuits their relationship.

Alice really is silly. And she gets pretty irritating. She might have been a lot easier to love if we were learning about her from a clever but generous Lipman narrator with some distance and wisdom. After all there are plenty of sad-sack heroines in literature: for example, virtually all those created by Anita Brookner. Their author sits wisely above the fray, showing as them as prisoners of personality and social circumstances.

But Alice tells her own tale, “a cautionary tale” she calls it, and she is too alert to her shortcomings to be able to duck questions about why she hasn’t made more efforts to engage with people — she works in a populous hospital in a fun city after all. Long hours of duty with the resulting need for sleep — that’s her excuse, but as Leo and Sylvie point out, she’s no worse off than other interns who nonetheless manage a social life.

Loneliness is her explanation of why she married Ray. OK, yes she’s lonely. And she feels she is in no position to be picky, despite Leo’s friendly presence. But Ray? It really doesn’t quite convince. And there’s lots of bits of plot about his private life and his schemes for Alice that don’t persuade either.

Then, too, scenes from home life such as dinner with Leo’s Catholic family and visits with Alice’s well meaning but truly awful mother are fun, and they could (just about) be read as essential background. But they work better as vivid vignettes with Mrs. Morrisey and Mrs. Thrift jumping off the pages as instant recruits to the ranks of the Embarrassing Mothers of Literature.

Nonetheless, they are among the pleasures to be had from “The Pursuit of Alice Swift,” its creaking plot notwithstanding. Nobody beats Elinor Lipman when it comes to zooming in on social schemers and phonies flaunting look-at-me affects and mouthing the kind of catch phrases that are sliding down the helter-skelter into cliched slang. As usual, she also does a terrific job of grasping the language of her characters’ professions — in this case medicine. No surprise then that her characters come alive as funny or awful, or smart or sexy or kind or pompous or vulgar or boring. They are fun to read about, especially as, very sweetly, in the last few pages Ms. Lipman makes sure they all get just what they deserve.

Claire Hopley is a writer in Amherst, Mass.

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