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Saturday, August 2nd, 2003


The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

by Elinor Lipman

A review by Georgie Lewis

Elinor Lipman's novels remind me of a very expensive haircut; the type of cut so subtle and understated one may be fooled into thinking that the possessor was simply born with astonishingly perfect hair. So, too, does the simple elegance of Lipman's prose deceive.

Packaged just a little too like so many of those "chick lit" books with a sunny, cartoon cover (Do publishers have so little respect for women that they attempt to lure them with such shiny candy wrappers?), The Pursuit of Alice Thrift announces itself in the first chapter as a cautionary tale. "This is about the weak link in my own character — wishful thinking — and a husband of short duration with a history of bad deeds," proclaims our narrator Alice Thrift.

Alice is a surgical intern, hoping to one day work in third world countries performing plastic surgery on accident victims, children with birth defects, and other people whose physical deformities cause them the distress of being different. Ray Russo first meets Alice when he inquires about a nose job. Alice, privately scornful of the type who would choose elective surgery, politely suggests that he probably doesn't need one, and mistaking this for tacit approval of his looks, personality, and suitability as a husband, Ray commences wooing her.

A travelling fudge salesman and opposite to Alice in practically every way, Ray has distinctly different approaches to money (he's cheap), manners (he's crass), and morality (he lies, lies, lies). He does, however, have a few things going for him. He pays attention to Alice. He listens to her and also encourages her to make friends with her confident, sassy neighbor Sylvia, who will eventually be her saving grace.

Alice, whose social ineptitude is so woeful that her mother suspects she is autistic, has resigned herself to being the quiet observer in life. But while she is dubious of Ray's motives and chilly to his courtship methods — dinners at sports bars, gifts of carnival fudge at every opportunity — Ray's relentless pursuit and Alice's quiet yearning are eventually reconciled in physical union. And to Alice's surprise, the sex is rather good:

"I'd read about orgasms, of course, but had been skeptical about whether their notoriety was deserved, and whether I'd ever be among their subscribers. Manifestation, in my case, was a surprise: One second I was noting pleasant physical sensations, and the next I was not myself. In other words, on my first night in the north tower, I omitted sounds that may have alarmed or annoyed my new neighbors."

Like her literary ancestor in fiction, Jane Austen, Lipman has a flair for subtle humor, grace, detailed social observation, and an astute knowledge of the human heart. And, boy can she write. Like scattered diamonds, Lipman's prose glitters with acerbic, witty, and heartfelt lines. One can pause and appreciate each sentence or gorge on the banquet that is this finely crafted novel.

While the caution at the opening propels the narrative toward its foreshadowed conclusion, the wisdom and self-esteem that Alice gradually accumulates, along with a new faith in friendships, makes for an ending with a moral more complex than initially expected. The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is more than just a pretty cover.

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