Culture Watch: The View from Penthouse B and The Paris Wife
Reviewed by Jill Norgren
The View from Penthouse B
By Elinor Lipman; c. 2013
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Hardbook; ebook; 252pp.
The Paris Wife
By Paula McLain; 2011
Published by Ballantine. Hardbook; paperback; ebook; 331pp.
Walking along the south side of Forty-First Street toward the New York Public Library a visitor traverses a dozen bronze plaques with literary quotes set into the sidewalk: Isak Dinesen, Emily Dickinson and then Ernest Hemingway. "Hem's" plaque contains a quote from his December 1934 Esquire article. In it he instructs, "All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse, and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer."
Hemingway establishes a near-impossible standard, one demanding that readers identify so completely and intimately with the events and characters of the story that the line between character and reader falls away.
This is an extraordinary goal, hoping for readers to say, "I felt as if I were Bovary, or Nana, or Gatsby." Yet much good fiction warrants attention without achieving that particular end. Elinore Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife each score as highly readable novels although not every reader will close these books feeling as if "it all belongs to [them]."
Relationships of several sorts are explored in these domestic dramas: that of siblings, friends, dates, colleagues, spouses, and ex-spouses. The View from Penthouse B offers a ménage á cinq wrapped up as a delightful fairy tale. Lipman brings together two sisters, one not-so-recently widowed, the other the victim of Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. They join forces in Penthouse B, the only asset not lost to ruse, to save money. To bolster their coupon cutting, Gwen and Margot take in the young Anthony, a gay boarder who not only pays rent but cooks, cleans, and analyzes life in usefully sensible ways. Lipman, a seasoned novelist, has a gift for dialogue and much of the book is carried by her ability to give her characters just the right words. The plot is pure Cinderella but the voices are pitch perfect and the world she constructs is a kind, gentle, and forgiving place. Lipman, like the Scottish writer Alexander McCall Smith, wins readers with the affection she shows for her characters, flaws and all, and for her belief in redemption.
Paula McLain cannot claim the same high ground as a writer. Her prose is serviceable, yet often heavy and self-conscious. But what a story McLain has chosen to re-tell. Using the device of historical fiction, she lets Hadley Richardson step forward and narrate the events of her courtship and marriage to the unknown but upcoming writer Ernest Hemingway. The Paris Wife reads like biography and, of course, poses all of the issues of historical fiction — first and foremost, why write fiction when voluminous biographical materials exist about the Hemingways and their circle of friends and colleagues?
Image: Quotation on Library Way, NYC, Jerome Lawrence (1915-2004) and Robert E. Lee (1918-1994) The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
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