With the release of the film Then She Found Me, there’s a good chance that an entirely new wave of readers will discover the talents of writer Elinor Lipman. I hope so and for anyone wishing to check out her novels, I recommend the very amusing, good-natured The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.
The novel’s protagonist and narrator is Alice Thrift, a surgical intern in a Boston hospital. While Alice is a ‘nice’ person, she’s hopeless in the social department. While she means well, she’s gauche, has no bedside manner, and has the tendency to say the wrong thing at the wrong time:
“I graduated second in my class, which I thought was a good prognostic of how I’d perform as a resident, but apparently it was not. I had some trouble bridging the gap between the patient’s surgical site–that disembodied, exposed triangle of skin awaiting a scalpel–and the patient’s mind, soul and figurative heart. I thought it was helpful to dissociate the two, to forget I was cutting into a live human being: to pretend it was dead, formaldehyded Violet or Buster, my two cadavers from anatomy class.”
Alice is also sexually naive, and has only had one clumsy, largely unsatisfying sexual encounter years before. The best relationship in her life is with her male roommate, the highly popular male nurse, Leo Frawley. They have a perfect roommate situation, and leave large boundaries around their personal space.
“How had I gotten so appallingly ineffective with actual people? I thought I had a nice way about me–I was particularly adept at delivering good-news bulletins to relatives in the waiting room, but even that drew criticism. Once in a while, a next of kin complained that the frown on my face as I walked into the lounge scared him or her to death. But wasn’t it mere concentration? It was never enough–my excellent knowledge of anatomy, my openings, my closings, my long hours. What people want, I swear, is a doctor with the disposition of a Montessori teacher.”
A crisis or an awakening in Alice’s life comes in the form of a sleazy, middle-aged fudge salesman named Ray Russo. He appears in Alice’s life at first for a consultation on a nose job, but when Alice discourages him from the surgery, he misinterprets (possibly very deliberately) her comments as a personal compliment. And from that point on, Ray lays siege to Alice–relentlessly pursing her, and in the process, Alice is forced to take risks in her personal life and begins to come out of her shell.
You’d have to go a long way to find a more incongruous relationship than that of Alice Thrift and Ray Russo. Opposites may attract, but these two are two entirely different species. As we read the description of Ray Russo’s courtship of Alice, from Ray’s money clip, his bleached teeth, and his pushy insistence on wheedling his way into Alice’s life, alarm bells begin to ring, but unfortunately, Alice is too naive and too desperate to hear them.
The book is full of the sort of great characters I’ve come to expect from this author, and once again I find myself thinking that I wouldn’t mind living inside a Lipman book. Her novels are full of flawed human beings, but Lipman examines these flaws with an eye to humour and tolerance. Great characters include:
The playboy nurse, Leo Frawley–a man who possesses great people skills and yet still manages to screw up.
Sylvie Schwartz–a resident who takes Alice under her wing, and yet for all of her woman-of-the-world experience she still ends up bedding a revolting doctor. Sylvie confesses: “I have such bad taste in men…that the only way to look back on these unfortunate liaisons without hating myself is to hate the former object of my affection.”
Ray Russo–the slimy, slippery salesman. Is this a case of opposites attract or does Ray have an ulterior motive? And I can’t forget to mention the laugh-out-loud scenes involving Alice’s mother.
The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is a very funny novel, and Lipman delivers her tale with her usual deadpan humour. While The Ladies’ Man is still my favourite Lipman, followed by My Latest Grievance, Alice Thrift’s tale takes third place