Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eleanor Lipmann's 'My Latest Grievance'

Preface: I just wrote this for something else and thought I'd dual post...

The unfortunate reality for funny women writers is that they are often sidelined as ‘chick lit’, ‘summer reading’ or, worse, ‘light’. Publishing companies, clamouring to discover the next Bridget Jones, saturate what are perfectly respectable novels either with references to the aforementioned heroine or with garish illustrated front covers synonymous with literature that is lightly pleasant but has no real depth. One wonders why it seems so difficult for some publishers to accept that a good, funny book written by a woman can be wildly popular without being touted as a beach read.

Eleanor Lipmann, notable writer of previous works The Dearly Departed and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, is no stranger to such treatment. Despite such marginalization however, Lipmann continues to produce work of insight, intelligence and great humour. She is remarkably adept at laying bare the foibles and idiosyncratic obsessions of humans without losing their humanity. She creates characters that are at turns pompous, arrogant, incredible, moving, hilarious and remorseful. While she allows us to laugh at them, it is never without at least a pinch of affection.

Such is the way with My Latest Grievance. Set in the 1970s, Frederica Hatch is a 16 year old girl blessed with intelligence and cynicism in equal measures. She has spent all her life at a small women’s college outside Boston, where her political activist parents are dorm-parents. Given free reign to explore the world around her (both personal and political), Frederica’s natural moment of rebellion arrives with the excessive Miss Laura Lee French, vivacious and over the top bon vivant – and also the first wife of Frederica’s father.

At first, Frederica is taken with Laura Lee, expressing childlike fascination with her glamour and style. Soon though, it becomes obvious that Laura Lee is the key to all their undoing, and her selfish, thoughtless acts will change the future of the college forever.

Lipmann keeps a tight reign on her characters here, and provides a fresh voice brimming with intelligent humour. Frederica Hatch is one of the most amusing heroines to spring out of fiction in recent years and will simply delight you.


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redcap said...

What is it with the whole chick lit thing? Most of it is just so unutterably dull. As soon as I hit the first mention of Jimmy Choos, Manolo Blahhhniks or Prada, I switch off. Luckily most of the covers have high heels or handbags on them, so I can steer clear.

This one sounds like fun. The story isn't the same, but it made me think of Barbara Trapido's Temples of Delight, which I enjoyed (and which was not chickish).

Ariel said...

Agreed. It's great to occasionally find good light reading for and by women, because it's usually so emptyheaded.

This does sound fun - and the college setting immediately elevates it above most 'chick-lit'. Is it new-ish?

Wow Redcap, I am staggered by the Trapido mention - first JTH, now this. I like your taste. I discovered Trapido by chance a couple of years ago and immediately went out and bought all of her books, I liked her so much.

Ariel said...

Oops, I just referred to 'light' reading. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing - I classify Nick Hornby as good light reading, and I love his books.

Nai said...

I was just about to say, 'I was just talking about the chicklit crap stuff with a friend, blah, blah, blah' before I realised that it was Audrey I was talking with. Ahem.
I think I may have to borrow that book when I get home. Looks like a nice relaxing read. I may take it to the beach.

Chesty LaRue said...

See I don't mind chick-lit for the same reason that I watch Neighbours (sorry, Redcap, for bringing everything back to television) - it's comforting, predicable and I don't have to think at all to enjoy it.

There's a whole nother post in the different types to chick-lit, but I won't get into that right now.

That said, this looks interesting on a different level and I may well check it out. Cheers Audrey.

audrey said...

I don't mind chick lit either - The Devil Wears Prada was a great light read. I just hate that women writers who don't write about rape and abuse and murder and depression get put in the 'brainless' basket.

Elinor Lipmann is very funny. Frederica is the perfect combination of amusing and intelligently obnoxious. And Laura Lee is out there!

Another great woman writer that gets tagged "chick lit" (with the ridiculous book covers that go along with it) is Melissa Bank. Her writing is snappy, smart, deep, funny and moving, yet for some reason she's signed with a publishing company that insists on making her books look like bargain beach reads.

I also like Curtis Sittenfeld.

Ariel said...

I was going to say it sounds a bit like Curtis Sittenfeld territory. I like her too - especially Prep.

Have always been put off Melissa Banks by those awful covers.

Clementine said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
audrey said...

No, you should read The Girl's Guide...it's really good.

The Blakkat said...

That's a really good review, Audrey. Frankly, if I didn't look at who the actual poster was I wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a review by you or redcap (except maybe by your tastes in books) - that's because you're both exceptionally articulate and have a knack for dissecting & commenting on someone else's work that you have read.

As regards Chicklit - some of it is exceptionally dull & repetitive, but there are authors who do 'chicklit' very, very well. What I mean by that, is that they are able to lay bare the insecurites of your average, middle-class, well educated female - and the expectations that go with all that - dealing with the failed relationships, the pull between motherhood & career, body image, family issues - all of that stuff. They may seem inconsequential and light weight when there are so many stories about people with truly traumatic experiences to be told - but sometimes you just want to read something that you can relate to. Hence, why Bridget Jones was so immensely popular and why Marion Keyes sells books by the thousands. Let's face it, Jane Austen was the original chicklit author.

But there are a number branches within the chicklit genre itself. Personally, although, I did enjoy The Devil Wears Prada (because it was well written), that whole 'fashion/designer label/fabulous New York lifestyle' branch of the chicklit tree does nothing for me. I like Marion Keyes for the reason that her 'heroines' (for want of a better word) are terribly, terribly ordinary. They're insecure, self-absorbed, riddled with flaws, yet, you can relate to them and MK knows how to take you on a satisfying emotional journey with them. I guess MK is my guilty pleasure, but this is also the genre that I write in, and not once have I mentioned Gucci handbags or Manolo Blaniks. My female characters are very ordinary and have normal jobs and meet average men who don't have flash apartments, porsches or platinum credit cards and they're not even particulary good looking.

For me, the appeal of chicklit (as opposed to 'romance', which I can't abide) is the humour. A good writer, like Keyes, Fielding, even Kathy Lette are really good with the wisecracks and the metaphors which come out of a gift for observing the absurd of the everyday and the foibles of very their very human characters.

I like reading more literary works too - where I can really admire the craft of the writer & get involved in the story- but I'm not going to apologise for liking certain types of chicklit. Lightweight, smitenate, if if makes you laugh and cry then it's a good read.

Chesty LaRue said...

What The Blakkat said. Seconded.

Very few MK books mention designer labels or fancy cocktails - and if they do, it's in passing and possibly a pisstake. Plus she actually deals with some heavier themes - she just does it in a heartwarming kinda way.