Saturday, April 29, 2006

Frederica Hatch is sensible, intelligent and in a troublesome situation through no fault of her own. In this she is like most of the central characters of Elinor Lipman’s eight previous novels: She has to cope with flamboyant people who have no scruples, and burdens that should belong to someone else. Fortunately, in “My Latest Grievance,” Frederica emerges (just like her predecessors) in a better place, and as she gets there Ms. Lipman ensures, as usual, that readers will be amused and entertained.

Ms. Lipman’s new heroine, Frederica, was raised on the campus of Dewing College, where her parents, David and Aviva, are professors and dorm houseparents. As a result, 16-year-old Frederica has never lived in a traditional family house and has rarely eaten a home-cooked meal (the Hatches’ remuneration package includes access to the college’s dining halls).

David and Aviva are busy bees, involved in the faculty union and a slew of good liberal causes, not to mention their teaching and dorm duties. As parents, they are big into openness, treating Frederica as an adult and telling her stuff most parents would hide. Except for one detail: They don’t tell her David was married before. So when David’s first wife, Laura Lee, sends Frederica the pearl necklace she wore at her wedding and asks to be her “pre-stepmother,” Frederica is understandably intrigued.

Being intrigued turns into being totally fascinated when Laura Lee shows up as Dewing’s newest dorm mother. How did dorky David ever attract the peacock Laura Lee? He’s much better suited to dowdy Aviva. It’s no surprise, at least to the reader, that when Davis and Aviva found themselves working in the same lab as graduate students, they soon ended up in the same bed.

It’s more surprising that David and Aviva do not try to thwart the hiring of Laura Lee. But as Frederica explains, “As champions of due process and fair play, they would sooner retire their gavels than put their personal discomfort ahead of an individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of take-home pay.”

Laura Lee has long red hair, travels with steamer trunks, wears stagey clothes, and loves recalling her days as a would-be Rockette in New York — but she has never held any kind of job for very long. She struts her way along to a very different drummer than the one the Hatches follow, though living on alimony from David she is still attached to their band.

When Frederica meets her in the dining hall, Laura Lee has a bottle marked White Grape Juice that actually contains Chablis. Frederica reminds her, “There’s a rule about bringing alcohol into the dining hall.” Much to Frederica’s surprise, Laura Lee asks, “Pro or con,” before claiming that the rule is “B.Y.O.B.”

Laura Lee’s behavior speeds downhill from there. If Frederica ever thought that shaking up her parents’ relationship was just, she is soon disillusioned. Though she was brought up to admire unconventional behavior, she realizes, “I had adopted a woman who stole, told lies, wore funny clothes, seduced college presidents, sneaked wine into the dining hall, read while she walked, and proposed to priests.”

The honeymoon is over, and having matched the Hatches’ absurd but serious-minded unorthodoxy with the frivolous narcissism of Laura Lee, Ms. Lipman has to wind up her plot. It’s tricky because she is not good at creating plots — at least not credible plots borne from the question, “What would these characters do in this situation, and how do their initial choices lead inevitably to other choices?”

What Ms. Lipman excels in is devising embarrassing social situations that freak out her characters. She gains narrative drive by delighting her audience with witty dialogue and pointed social observations. Readers keep turning the pages as the characters suffer one squirm-inducing event after another, and the less-than-credible bits of the tale whiz right by. But when Ms. Lipman has to produce the traditional happy ending of the comic novelist, things come to a jarring halt.

In “My Latest Grievance,” Laura Lee has caused such devastation that it’s hard to accept her inclusion in the rosy glow of the book’s final pages. As for the reversal of fortunes in the control of Dewing College, they are frankly unbelievable.

The problematic ending suggests unresolved problems in Ms. Lipman’s work. Few if any novelists writing in America today have a better sense of social absurdities or a sharper eye for spotting phonies and parasites. Yet for all this, and for all the local detail of their mostly Massachusetts settings, Ms. Lipman’s novels really come from sitcom land, where things entertain rather than surprise or shock or seriously touch the emotions. Like any successful sitcom, the novels have a sameness because they rely on a winning formula.

In practice, this means that “My Latest Grievance” is well worth reading — a perfect book for summer. Lovers of Ms. Lipman’s earlier work will certainly enjoy her latest and can have extra fun imagining who they would cast in the big screen adaptation. But admirers of her considerable literary talents may well wish she would deploy them in ways that depend less on the blueprint she developed in her earliest novels.

Claire Hopley is a writer and critic in Amherst, Mass.

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