My Latest Grievance
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin, 243 pp., $24
If it is true that, for many of us readers, we hope (often in vain) that our lives will possess something of the emotion, humor, and intensity of a really good book, it is true for others that they find their lives have turned into the wrong kind of tome altogether. Such is the fate that befalls Frederica Hatch, the ringmaster of Elinor Lipman's delightful new novel, ''My Latest Grievance." A teenager who has spent her entire life living on the campus of a third-rate women's college, Frederica longs for the excitement and overheated dialogue of a pulpy romance novel. Too bad for her that she finds herself stuck with the walking sociology textbooks that are her parents, David and Aviva, liberal-minded union-activist professors described as ''the most annoyingly evenhanded parental team in the history of civilization."
Salvation, or so she thinks, comes in an unexpected package. Frederica is simultaneously appalled and thrilled to discover that her heretofore maddeningly forthright parents have been keeping a secret from her: that her father had been married once before, to a woman named Laura Lee French. Laura Lee is a breath of fresh air when compared with Frederica's hyper-rational parents: emotional, self-absorbed, a chronic exaggerator. Starved for the vision of commonplace domesticity she has been carrying a torch for, all white picket fences, squabbling siblings, and homemaker mothers, Frederica embraces Laura Lee as the anti-Aviva. She thoroughly enjoys her parents' acute discomfort at the family secret's reemergence and is nothing short of thrilled when Laura Lee is hired as a dorm mother at Dewing College. Fascinated by the notion of her geeky father as a closet lothario, Frederica demands to know all the uncomfortable details, discomfiting her parents no end. Laura Lee, equally adept at digging for a truth of her own choosing, plays amateur therapist, finding evidence of lurking familial disharmony in every one of Frederica's stray musings.
Things don't get seriously awkward, in trademark Lipman fashion, until Laura Lee falls madly in love with the university's new president, Eric Woodbury, who is inconveniently married. As the new couple amateurishly attempt to hide their romance, the Hatch family is thrust into the unlikely role of Laura Lee's hesitant protectors. David and Aviva strenuously attempt to dissuade Laura Lee from her destructive romantic course, which eventually threatens their family unity, their jobs, and the future of Dewing, but with one major catch: Some 20 years prior, when David and Aviva had fallen in love, Laura Lee had been the helpless victim of their budding romance. That Laura Lee can see no difference between the former situation and the current, which comes to include a depressed, rebellious daughter and an invalid wife among its casualties, are among ''My Latest Grievance" 's most piquant ironies.
Frederica is a bemused spectator to her parents' strenuous egalitarianism, their anguished insistence that cleaning toilets is every bit as valid a professional choice as a tenured professorship, but she is also capable of subscribing wholeheartedly to their views when it suits her needs. Persuaded by her parents that she is an equal partner in all familial decision-making, she thrusts herself into the midst of Laura Lee's slowly unfolding disaster, dispensing advice, counseling, and criticism in equal doses. In short, Frederica is what might be called a busybody. Sardonic Laura Lee says of Frederica's parents that ''they wouldn't want their teenager to know she was under twenty-one," but is hardly the ideal judge of human affairs. This is, after all, the woman who, when informed by Frederica that the college has a policy on the consumption of alcohol in the dining hall, asks ''Pro or con?" She is also a drama queen who strikes out at those who attempt to deflate her aura of grandiosity. Prone to making pronouncements on her situation like ''This is me in the middle of a crisis that affects hundreds, maybe thousands of people," Laura Lee is a humorously malevolent force of nature, hell-bent on having things her way, regardless of the consequences, and her borderline sociopathy sets into motion Lipman's comedy of cross-purposes.
Laura Lee may never change, but ''My Latest Grievance" is a story of transformation, where Frederica comes to see some good in her parents' wishy-washy liberalism, and her parents develop a little steel in their backbones to deal with feckless Eric and batty Laura Lee. Lipman's dialogue is consistently mirthful, her entire book filled with witty, quotable bons mots, but each time ''My Latest Grievance" threatens to turn into a Wodehousian collision of caricatures, she pulls back and, with carefully timed reminders of her characters' painful reality, turns her comedy of manners into something a good deal more moving. Lipman is a fizzy writer, but her fizz is tempered with genuine emotion, and her marvelously funny stories take place in a world recognizably our own.
Saul Austerlitz is a writer living in New York City. He is at work on his first book, a history of music videos.