The ex factor

A precocious teen teams up with her dad's former wife in Elinor Lipman's new campus comedy.

After nearly two decades as a published author, Elinor Lipman is finally breaking out. Exacting readers like novelist Fay Weldon are trumpeting the Massachusetts native’s ninth book, My Latest Grievance, as the work of an unsung genius. Hollywood is also taking note: Then She Found Me, a barbed mother-daughter tale written nearly 20 years ago, starts filming this fall, with Helen Hunt directing her own script; the Weitz brothers, who minted literary gold with the adaptation of Nick Hornby’s About a Boy, are deep in rewrite conferences for The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, the author’s mordant romp about an oddball doctor and a bigamist; and Tom Hanks and Robert Benton are working on her atonement comedy The Ladies’ Man. With the ’70-set My Last Grievance just out in stores, Lipman’s tart, hapless heroines and the narcissists who blast apart their ordered lives seem destined to seduce a whole new readership.

“My narrators tend to have low self-esteem,” says the author, a buoyant 55-year-old, “because it’s so much fun to rescue them, maybe send them to charm school.” The heroine in need of rescuing in Grievance is university brat Frederica Hatch, a strong-willed teen driven by a need to experience the frivolously gratifying, girlish side of life that her progressive-hippie professor parents have denied her. “I had the idea that she would be like the Eloise of the college campus, born and raised,” says Lipman of the precocious character, who may have read the classics but has never strayed far outside of her ivory-tower life.

The instrument of Frederica’s deliverance is a classic Lipman force of nature, the “enthralling and once glamorous” Laura Lee French, a breathtakingly self-serving drama queen whom Frederica sees as a welcome alternative to her own mother. Laura Lee turns out to be a woman from Frederica’s father’s well-guarded past: an ex-wife. The instant that Laura Lee bestows a strand of pearls upon the impressionable Frederica, the teen is hooked, but her yearnings set in motion a startling chain reaction that transforms the lives of everyone around her—her own most of all. Lipman says she got the idea for Grievance while reading Richard Russo’s Risk Pool. Early into that novel about a divorced family, she thought, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if a child never knew about one of their parents’ first wife or husband?”

Lipman’s literary alchemy is on full display in Grievance, which brings wit and unexpected warmth to the earnest politics of academics. “It was fun for me to take annoying parents and make them the heroes of the book,” says the author, who tempers her more serious sociological explorations with sly humor. Her editor, Jane Rosenman, compares Lipman’s books to classic ’40s screwball romances: “They have an eye for social detail, a crispness to the dialogue, a kind of madcap element.”

The author’s gift at tragicomic sleight of hand is particularly remarkable considering that Lipman didn’t actually take a writing class until the age of 28. (Her teacher was highly encouraging.) The self-effacing author is surprised herself by how many books she’s written. A debut collection of linked stories was published almost by accident in 1987, when the first editor to read her writing offered a contract on the spot. Eight novels followed, each adding to her ardent fan base.

The publishing industry hasn’t always been able to market the heady entertainment of Lipman’s books, and over the years, her distinct voice has presented a challenge to publishers bent on squeezing original works into familiar formulas. “If it comes out in the summer and it’s written by a woman, they’ll use that awful c-word,” declares Lipman, referring to the chick now almost compulsively appended to women authors’ lit.

It may take Hollywood to make Lipman a household name, but she isn’t complaining. Mostly, the author is happy she gets to devote herself to writing full time, and she’s currently deep into her next novel, the first to be set in Manhattan. In many ways, Lipman’s journey is similar to the ones her characters travel: quirky, filled with unexpected challenges, but ultimately leading to fulfillment. Like her heroines, this writer has come into her own.

My Latest Grievance ($24) is out now from Houghton Mifflin.