The Ladies’ Man by Elinor Lipman

ladies-manThe Ladies’ Man was the first Elinor Lipman novel I read, and it was the book that made me a solid fan. I’ve read several of this author’s titles since then, and while My Latest Grievance is a close second, The Ladies’ Man remains my favourite.

Here’s the plot:

Back in 1967, Harvey Nash failed to show for a party announcing his engagement to Adele Dobbin. He ran off without an explanation, and now thirty years later he returns to the scene of the crime, Boston. It’s the middle of the night when Harvey, who’s reinvented himself as Nash Harvey arrives from California. He’s run off again–this time he’s abandoned his girlfriend, reflexologist Dina and impulsively taken a plane back to Boston, the scene of the crime, with some vague idea of visiting Adele.

Nash finds Adele, a prominent public television personality, still single and living with her two sisters together in an apartment. Adele is the eldest of three sisters—with Lois, divorced and with some misguided idea that Nash has come back for her. Then there’s the ‘baby’ Kathleen who owns a lingerie shop and is about to embark on a delicate romance with a doorman named Lorenz.

Nash wheedles his way into the lives of the Dobbin sisters, and his perennial charm fails to work on either Adele or Kathleen. Meanwhile brother Richard Dobbin plays a cool hand, observing events and coming to his own conclusions about Nash.

I have a soft spot for novels that include the Male as Bounder, Rat, or Scumbag. Note that I am capitalizing those terms. When it comes to raking over the coals of my memory for books that includes a perfect example of the character type I am talking about, there have been a number of novels in my past that leap to mind: but perhaps Martin Amis’s brilliant, dark and wickedly funny novel Money, is the most enduring.

The Ladies’ Man–Nash, a composer of jingles is another perfect example of an opportunistic cad, an irresponsible rogue male who floats through life leaving a trail of teary, forlorn women in his past while self-focused Nash escapes unscathed from a string of tawdry episodes. To Nash, every woman is a potential sex partner, and they either have interest for him or they don’t–the pile on the left or the pile on the right. It’s perfect that Lipman created Nash as a composer of jingles–because it’s reflective in a way of Nash himself–not too serious, light and inconsequential, but once he’s in your head, it’s not so easy to get rid of him.

Nash is handsome and charming enough that women who know better lower their guard and then Nash takes advantage of them. In his 50s now, he’s right at that age when the charm is wearing a little thin, and he has to try a little harder with his female victims who’ve played the field enough they should know better than to give Nash the time of day.

Written differently, this could be a very morose, depressing book, but in Lipman’s deft hands, the tale is light and very, very amusing. Lipman nails Nash’s character so well–the insincerity, the shallowness of a man who’s glided through life, using women as stepping stones and life rafts without realizing the damage left in his wake while always keeping an eye open for a better opportunity:

“There are people who want to meet you,” she says.Lipman is pitch perfect with this character–never once heavy handed. Nash may be a horrible nuisance and a leech, but this time around those who know him are forced to reevaluate their lives and some of the decisions they’ve made. Reading the novel again recently, I enjoyed it every bit as much–if not more–than the first time around. It’s a delightful, humorous read.

He asks, rolling off her after intercourse and reaching for the remote, how will she introduce him at this shindig. Friend? Roommate? Client? Nothing cute, he hopes, or overly personal. Their relationship is special but no one’s business but their own.

Cynthia says coldly, “‘Friend,’ of course. I wouldn’t want to narrow your options.”

Nash puts his arm around her and strokes her ample bicep. What had they agreed to? One step at a time, right? Hadn’t he said an emphatic No to moving in after one night together, and hadn’t she promised he wouldn’t regret his decision? Hadn’t they been honest in exploring the connotations of commitment? Don’t get him wrong: He loves being here, loves the gourmet meals, and–why mince words?–the sex. But he’s between two worlds right now–an old stifling life and a new uncharted one. Perhaps it would be better if he got his own place and they had an old-fashioned dating courtship?

“No,” says Cynthia. “I want you here.”

“Give me a kiss,” he says.

Before he falls asleep they discuss the format–Cocktails? Tapas? Sit-down dinner? Desserts?–and decide on a buffet featuring products Nash has turned into jingles.”

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