On Turpentine Lane
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$24, 320 pages
Starting a new romantic relationship is not unlike buying an older home. On the surface, all might seem fine. Lots of personality, charming features, solid foundation and all that. But upon closer inspection, you might discover that you have more of a fixer-upper than you bargained for. Also, a previously lived-in abode might possess a less-than-savory history that will carry over when you occupy it. Same with a partner who comes bearing the ghosts of marriages and affairs past that could hover over whatever future you would share.
Considering that author Elinor Lipman engages in real-estate talk in the opening pages of “On Turpentine Lane,” this HGTV junkie was immediately drawn into how the book’s narrator Faith Frankel -- whose full name we will eventually learn a few chapters in -- is having second thoughts about her recently acquired homestead. The two-bedroom “little doll house,” as her agent declares it, possesses a mid-century quaintness that initially obscures such negatives as an old boiler, a small backyard and the possibility that at least one death if not more occurred under its roof. The fact that the seller accepted her below-asking-price offer and is paying for all needed repairs is another indication that not all is what it seems.
Just as 30-something Faith is semi-committed to her just-purchased abode, she is kind-of engaged to new beau Stuart – he tied a red string around her finger that gave her a rash -- after moving from Brooklyn back to her hometown of Everton, Mass., for a fund-raising-related position at her private school alma mater. They met at an academic black-tie event, where he opted to don one of those dopey T-shirts meant to look like a tux. Despite that warning sign, they become a couple. But a sudden appendectomy causes what once was a gainfully employed companion to turn into a crowdfunded Forrest Gump-ish cross-country trekker who spends much of his travels on foot posting selfies alongside comely women.
Eventually a raft of family members, co-workers and acquaintances, most imbued with colorful if not always welcome traits and burdened with issues concerning matters of the heart, are introduced by Lipman with tartly observational wit and a deep understanding of all-too-human foibles. There is Joel, her no-nonsense, devoted and divorced brother who runs a plow-and-tow biz. Meanwhile, father Henry is taking a sabbatical from his marriage so he can pursue his inner Chagall as an artist. Literally. He creates faux replicas of masterpieces with a personalized twist for patrons. As a result, their surprisingly self-sufficient mom Nancy has too much time on her hands and gets more involved in her children’s personal business than is probably healthy.
Although most will surmise it long before Faith does, her most ardent supporter and -- given their investment in each other’s lives along with their snappy office repartee -- her should-be Mr. Right is workmate Nick. It's not only because he stands up for Faith and helps clear her good name when she is wrongly accused of an on-the-job monetary snafu. Nick also emboldens her to drop Stuart just as he himself breaks up with his live-in girlfriend. Plus, they have the same sense of humor. He even guesses right that Stuart likes to refer to her as “babe.” There’s an empty second bedroom at Faith’s Ike-era bungalow. Why not become roommates?
At a certain juncture, Lipman amps up the mystery element of her novel. It’s not the strongest part of her narrative, even if it keeps one guessing as it relies upon small-town insularity and gossip along with the local police to piece together certain clues that include an antique cradle with a photo album found in the attic and rumors of long-ago mysterious goings-on in the basement. Meanwhile, Faith – when she isn’t playing Nancy Drew -- and Nick become increasingly cozy in their current arrangement while others within their circle somehow get happily mixed and matched in unlikely but somehow sensible ways.
What kept me happily flipping the pages, however, is Lipman’s ability of making me want to hang out with Faith and wishing the best for her. I don’t think there is one description of her physical appearance. But that her mother endearingly calls her “Faithy” somehow fills in a lot of blanks. I found myself shaking my head in agreement as she summed up the people and situations she confronts and her reactions to events. Reading her thoughts was often like listening to an old friend on the phone. All in all, these are very lived-in characters with good bones. In other words, you won’t have buyer’s remorse if you pick up Lipman’s latest.
Susan Wloszczyna is a former film writer for USA Today and a contributing critic to the Roger Ebert website