The Blue Book

9780544027701_p0_v1_s260x420A. L. Kennedy’s Blue Book requires concentration and patience. With so many strange tangents, the story shifts dramatically and often, so that you may think you are reading the first chapter of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. But, if you persist, you will be rewarded.

Three characters drive the action: Beth and Derek, who are on a week-long ocean cruise, and Arthur, whom they supposedly meet for the first time in the queue to board the ship. Kennedy soon reveals that Arthur and Beth are old acquaintances and sometime lovers, with Derek unaware of a rival onboard. Beth and Arthur worked together as a theatrical psychic team, using numbers to communicate stage cues to each other; knowing this before you begin to read may help.

As Derek languishes in his cabin with seasickness, prolonged by Beth’s scuttling his seasick pills to keep him there, Arthur disappears into his suite on the concierge level.  Beth splits her time between Derek in the stifling sick room cabin, and Arthur with his complimentary butler, with a few forays to the buffet in between.  Although this may sound like a Marx Brothers farce, the humor is subtle and the overwhelming emotional baggage they have all carried on board floats up.

Kennedy’s wry humor reveals the characters’ innermost thoughts with her stand-up comedy timing.

“…you don’t want to get married, not you – marriage, that’s an institution – since when did you want to spend life in an institution?”

 and she addresses the reader with off stage soliloquies that draw the reader in as a fellow conspirator.   When Kennedy’s unreliable narrator digresses from the plot in the middle of the book to address “you,” the reader, I wondered, as you may – how did she know that about me?  Like reading a horoscope, each reader can be sure a part of the message was meant for him or her, and confirms how Beth and Arthur could control an audience with their participants’ expectations –  “…we live in stories…”  The narrator also subtly offers hints to the emotional journey that the main characters are experiencing, that only makes sense at the end, when Kennedy neatly brings all the mysterious plot lines together – as well as explaining the title – with yet another surprise.

When interviewed by John Williams for The New York Times – A Couple At Sea: A. L. Kennedy Talks About the Blue Book –  Kennedy defined the plot:

Two people decide to trust each other enough — and themselves enough — to love each other properly and be honest and to use all of themselves to be with each other. That’s the interior plot. The exterior plot is: “There are three people on a boat, one woman, two men — go figure.”

Despite my initial confusion, I kept reading and connected to Kennedy’s philosophical quirks as well as the work of keeping all the plot lines in my head.  Her ending was satisfying.  If you decide to read this book, find a quiet place to focus on it, with no distractions – maybe an ocean cruise.

Elinor Lipman – Fiction and Nonfiction

Fiction: The View from Penthouse B

9780547576213_p0_v1_s260x420Elinor Lipman is an acquired taste; her characters are likable, ordinary, sometimes boring, and in The View from Penthouse B her focus on three sisters once again reveals how everyday connections can take the mundane to the universal. Although the focus is the widowed middle sister, Gwen-Laura, who moves into her older sister’s new York penthouse apartment, a cast of characters quickly manage to overwhelm the slow-moving story.

Recognizable contemporary issues drive the action: older sister Margot has lost all her money in Madoff’s Ponzi scheme; her husband, a famous medical doctor is in jail for having sex with his patients; a new gay roommate bakes cupcakes after losing his job at Lehman Brothers; Gwen looks to online dating to find a new life. Sometimes working like a slow Marx Brothers movie, the angles intersect humorously and without much rancor. Although I am a Lipman fan, I found myself falling asleep reading this book – in the middle of the day. If you need fast-paced thrills, this is not for you, but as comfort food for the soul, Lipman’s style is a reminder of the possibility that life can always get better.

Nonfiction: I Can’t Complain

9780547576206_p0_v1_s260x420Lipman’s book of short essays – I Can’t Complain – arrived from the library with her novel. The collection draws from Lipman’s experiences, with the last essay neatly summarizing the plot of her new novel, noting parallels to Lipman’s life after the untimely death of her husband.

I liked this collection of real stories better than the fictionalized version.

One of my favorite books is Berg’s collection of essays that opens with The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted; the same deprecating humor and memorable lines flow through I Can’t Complain. Somehow, Elinor Lipman channeled my mother, my attitudes, sometimes my secret fears – but then Lipman prides herself in connecting to Everyman in her novels of manners – so maybe we all are like that?

On Holding a Grudge:

Upon meeting me you’d find me pleasant, reasonable, and without question, nice…But let me step aside and introduce the inner child…who very much likes to hold a grudge…My personal trepsverter (Yiddish expression meaning ‘perfect retort’) is the tape in my head, always cued up, of the dialogue I might have voiced if life were a soap opera, where good characters scold the bad characters, and the bad characters stand still long enough to hear it.

Real life rarely presents those opportunities. If I find myself in the company of someone who slighted me in, say, 1986, and I excavate the old insult, my conviction, and my voice soon fade: this villain remembers neither the conversation, the context, nor me.”

On Trying to Impress One’s Mother:

“…{at a} book group luncheon. I tried to be winning and entertaining so she could see me in action and be proud. I talked my heart out. She smiled and nodded regally from her chair at the head table… As soon as we got in the car, I asked,”So? What’d you think?” She smiled, patted her own shoulder pads. “I think this suit was a very good choice for this event, don’t you?”

Another review on a Lipman book: The Family Man