Tidewater Review - October 2013

The View from Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman

as reviewed by

Anne Stinson

The View From Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 252 pp. $25.

Oh, joy, oh, delights! Another grabber of a book by Elinor Lipman, whose I Can’t Complain was recently reviewed in this space. This one is like the previous one, full of keen understanding of the relationships among women “of a certain age” and, in this case, among three sisters, their ups and downs and buttinsky advice peppered with hilarity, pathos and coping skills.
Make no mistake ~ this is not a weeper for women only. The male figures are just as admirable, even lovable and maddening at the same time. Mostly, it’s a puzzle of how people overcome sadness, rage andpoverty without losing courtesy and genuine love of family.
As the scenario opens, Betsy is the oldest and lives in her own house in New York. She has a reasonably good life, a good marriage of many years with the usual annoyances. Her husband is a music teacher rather than what she wants him to be. (Anything but.)
Margot is the youngest, divorced from her beast of a husband, Charles. Alas, Charles is a physician specializing in treating women who have fertility issues. The marriage came apart when he was accused of improper behavior with the women who desperately wanted to be pregnant. Oh, besides that, he has an illegitimate child with one of them.
The jury convicted him of all of the same in a lurid trial full of rage for Margot and prison for Charles. The divorce left her with ownership of the penthouse, all their furniture and half his wealth. The money evaporated when she invested it with Bernie Madoff. In a wink, she was penniless in Penthouse B.
Gwen, the middle sister, is still grieving over her “ new” widowhood ~ Edwin , who appeared to be perfectly well during their 19-year marriage, simply didn’t wake up one morning. They had been childless, so Gwen was alone and sad until big sister Betsy, as was her wont, urged her to move in with Margot and share the space and the bills in Penthouse B, 12 stories above Manhattan.
Margot has had enough time to work off her rage at men in general, with the exception of the heinous Charles. Their women-only household goes coed when she joins a picket line in front of Lehman Bros. after it goes bankrupt. She meets Anthony, a charming young man who is now out of a job and a divorce and wants to find new lodgings. Margot is attracted by the placard he carries. It says “Next Stop: The Poor House,” the title she uses on her blog.
They talk and laugh and he asks her if she has a room to let. His former wife, a foreign student in the U.S. with a lapsing visa, was the befriended partner in a non-sex marriage. Anthony, he tells the sisters when he is invited to the Penthouse for an interview for moving into the spare room, is gay. He brings with him for the interview some of his home-baked cupcakes as a gift while Margot and Gwen decide that he is a welcome boarder until he finds another job on Wall Street.
The future of the odd household is full of humor and sassiness, the latter with comments from Betsey, who doesn’t live in the penthouse with her sisters, and who harbors fear of a gay man in their midst. As a matter of fact, they love Anthony and his masculinity when it comes to odd jobs in the apartment.
All is contentment until the wicked Charles is paroled from prison and has the effrontery to move into the bottom floor of the same apartment building and begins to woo his ex-wife all over again. His attitude is not only a program of redemption but is temporarily squelched by his put-down by Anthony, posing as the macho partner of one of the ladies in residence.
The ruckus pushes widowed Gwen to consider dating again with prissy adventures into online dating. Betsy, always full of butting in, wants to rewrite Gwen’s “in-search-of” entries, invest in more attractive clothes, and for God’s sake loosen her hair and try to wear make-up more appropriate than the 1930s brands.
The reluctant Gwen takes some time to go that far, and has the expected rejections, one after another. Meanwhile, bad Charles has finagled with enough chutzpah to join the three people in the penthouse at dinner. Desperate to see Margot, he invites himself. Margot is still furious at him. Gwen and Anthony are uncomfortable in sharing a meal with a person who exposed Margot to so much humiliation. He is charged with the hosts to bring the wine, and it can’t be the cheap stuff, either.
Anger recedes as Charles is truly ashamed of his crime and persuasive in his courtship. It would be unfair to reveal how the story ends for readers who zip though this endearing story. Aside from the laugh-aloud sarcasm and anxieties of all concerned (except Anthony), the retorts are priceless.
This reader found it a delightful romp with all the family quirks and basic goodness of the characters. Don’t miss it. The tale is Elinor Lipman at her best.

Anne Stinson began her career in the 1950s as a free lance for the now defunct Baltimore News-American, then later for Chesapeake Publishing, the Baltimore Sun and Maryland Public Television’s panel show, Maryland Newsrap. Now in her ninth decade, she still writes a monthly book review for Tidewater Times.