Elinor Lipman has delivered another sparkling, big-hearted and wise novel — her 10th — with “The View from Penthouse B” (2013). You don’t read Lipman’s fiction to do a deep dive into world issues or to challenge yourself to unravel a confounding mystery. She simply offers her readers hours of pleasure, keeping them on their toes wondering how the quirky and decent friends they meet within will prosper.
Here the narrator, 50-something Gwen-Laura Schmidt, had left the one bedroom apartment she shared with her dear husband Edwin after his untimely death to move in with her older sister Margot, who was dealing with her own loss. Margot had bought the spacious penthouse B with money she was awarded in the divorce settlement from her husband, Charles, “a too-handsome, board-certified physician with an ugly story.” In an act she was soon to regret, she had placed the remaining money from her creepily philandering husband into the stewardship of one Bernie Madoff.
Neither sister is employed, though Margot has found a consuming pastime in blogging on her site, thepoorhouse.com and exchanging ravings with other victims of “the incarcerated felon.” She periodically dates a fellow Ponzi-victim she connects with on the site but tires of having to pay for even his cups of coffee. Margot excels at living frugally — double and triple coupons, the bruised-fruit-and-vegetable shelf in the market but sautéing cumin seeds for the broth of the cabbage soup she whips up with the wilting leaves.
Since her husband’s death, Gwen hasn’t worked “writing copy for bill inserts issue by utility companies.” She tells people she has “something on the drawing board,” that “something” being a concept of arranging dates for people who only want companionship. (Chaste Dates is her working title.) Margot reminds her often that it reflects her own timidity about getting back into circulation two years after her husband’s death.
Another boarder joins them in the penthouse when Margot meets a hunky, young gay man named Anthony, picketing outside what used to be his place of employment, Lehman Brothers. For effect, he was wearing a sling holding a black baby he borrowed from a former co-worker with twins and waving a sign that declared “Next Stop: the Poor House!” Margot knew then that he belonged with her and Gwen.
There are roadblocks galore as the sisters try to move out of their loveless, impoverished state. Margot is horrified when her ex, Charles, moves into an apartment in their building’s basement and actively courts her. Gwen tests the waters of dating and struggles to learn where it is easier to find love: on Craigslist, Match.com or The New York Review of Books.
Lipman is at her best when the three penthouse residents weigh in on each and every detail of the others’ search for love. You will see why People Magazine calls Lipman “the diva of dialogue.”