Elinor Lipman uses her witty banter to deliver a frothy and pleasurable read in her latest novel On Turpentine Lane. The story revolves around an old house, recently purchased by Faith Frankel, a thirty-something whose boyfriend is walking across the country like Forest Gump. Lipman’s strength lies in her characters as they meander through ridiculous situations, now and then offering zingers of truth about how people deal with life – through grudges, betrayals, romance – even murder.
An easy read, On Turpentine Lane has all the qualities of a romantic comedy, with a murder mystery mingled into the plot of a small town drama. After Faith discovers a strange Polaroid in the attic, the local police inform her the former owner – a ninety year old not-dead-yet maven, who may have pushed two husbands down the steep cellar stairs, is living nearby in a nursing home. As the investigation simmers, Faith’s father, an insurance salesman, has an epiphany and becomes a painter of Chagall imitations, with images of paying customers in replicas of the artist’s surreal work. In the meantime, Faith decides to stop financing Stuart (Forest Gump) and connect with her handsome colleague, Nick Franconi, who shares her work space in the development office of a private children’s school. Nick moves into the Turpentine Lane house, and when Stuart runs out of money and returns, Faith conveniently connects him to Nick’s former girlfriend.
Although the comedic force follows a sitcom formula, Lipman’s undercurrent grounds the story with perfectly aimed asides, driving the action fast and tight. All pieces and characters neatly connect and the murder mystery is solved. Life may be hilarious in a Lipman drama, but it always has an element of truth connecting the reader to something relatable and real.
I’ve enjoyed many of Lipman’s stories. My favorite may always be her essay “The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted.”