The Family Man
Elinor Lipman
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Buy *The Family Man* by Elinor Lipman online

The Family Man
Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
320 pages
May 2009
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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In this bubbly 21st-century Austen-style comedy of manners, the world of middle-aged lawyer Henry Archer proves once more that your past always catches up with you. When Henry sends a letter of condolence to his ex-wife, Denise, after her new husband suddenly dies of a heart attack, he surreptitiously throws a lifeline to this neurotic difficult woman with a high threshold for divorce and for infidelity related punishment.

Denise, who mortally offended everyone including her two stepsons with thoughtless remarks at her husband's funeral, has a reputation for being difficult at best. When she decides to reconnect with Henry after all these years, she brings along all the expectations and misinterpretations of their rocky marriage and memories of Henry, who was eventually pushed out of the relationship by Denise’s new beau.

Henry still wonders why he was so young and selfish when he relinquished his rights as a parent. When Thalia, his ex-stepdaughter and the coat check girl at his local hair salon, suddenly walks back into his life, Henry is plagued by self-doubt that he could have fought harder to keep his stepdaughter. Now this rather formal man who was looking forward to enjoying the fruits of his retirement has to learn to be a parent all over again.

Thalia, an aspiring actress, appears well-adjusted and content. While father and stepdaughter are only to happy to open their hearts out to each another over a glass of wine (without Denise’s knowledge), Thalia secretly wants Henry’s advice as she unfurls her plan to enter into a faux engagement with horror luminary and budding young movie star Leif Dumont. Leif aches to break into the big time, but so does Thalia, and she will stop at nothing to use this as a way to gain exposure.

Meanwhile, Henry unexpectedly finds love with Todd, who works as a store assistant at Gracious Home, a trendy Manhattan department store. Thalia absolutely adores Todd, even as she constantly clashes with Denise over the family business, a very successful box factory. Adding to the eccentric mix of characters and situations is Henry’s therapist, Sheri Abrams, and Philip, a sexy DJ who takes a shine to Thalia. There’s also Todd’s aging mother, Lillian, who is of the opinion that it’s humiliating to be viewed as the kind of parent who wouldn’t love a gay son.

I initially had high hopes for this novel after seeing the film version of Lipman’s previous book, Then She Found Me. However, The Family Man’s flimsy plot disappointed me, although Lipman’s characters mostly come across as endearing and charming with all their quirks and petty idiosyncrasies.

While the dialogue anchors the story, I soon tired of the pop-culture references and the constant triviality. Certainly Henry remains the star, a poor, unassuming man at a loss in the postmodern world of wannabe movie stars, media coaches, and strategic planners. For her part, Thalia ends up challenging Henry's most basic assumptions of fatherhood, especially when she moves into his basement maisonette and becomes the driving force behind Henry's new role as dissembler, withholder, and covert social operator.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2009

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