The View from Penthouse B
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 272 pages
Elinor Lipman, a genuinely gifted writer of light fiction, has a lovely formula down pat, as her 10th novel, The View from Penthouse B, proves. First, she gathers an ensemble cast whose problems and preoccupations prove wonderfully entertaining, then plunks them down in an alluring milieu. (Penthouse B is the crown jewel of the Batavia, an art deco building in the West Village.) Then, once everybody has happily suspended disbelief, Lipman sets the hook, reeling her readers in with snappy dialogue, epigrammatic descriptions, and plots that demand to be read right through to their inevitably happy endings.
The View from Penthouse B revolves around three middle-aged Manhattan sisters. Gwen-Laura, born between “perfect Margot and formidable Betsy,” is the novel’s narrator. Nearly two years after her husband Edwin’s sudden and premature death (at 49, in his sleep), Gwen-Laura is emotionally adrift. Though her grief has largely subsided to melancholy, “all topics—music, food, movies, wall colors, a stranger’s questions about my marital status or the location of the rings on my fingers—bring him back.” This wistful state of mind suits Gwen just fine, but widowhood brings nosy would-be matchmakers out of the woodwork, and everyone wants to set Gwen up with someone new. “They mean well, I’m told,” Gwen allows, but they miss the point. “I think Edwin actually would be glad I haven’t remarried, dated, or looked,” she says, simply. “He wasn’t a jealous husband, but he was a sentimental one.”
Gwen-Laura’s own sentimentality—she could be auditioning for the role of Quietly Grieving Widow—is offset by her older sister Margot, who is actively embracing the identity of “amusingly bitter ex-wife.” If Gwen is two-thirds endearing, one-third frustrating (a familiar type in Lipman’s fiction), Margot tips the ratio in the opposite direction; she’s brassy, obnoxious, and outrageous. And she’s been through the wringer. Her ex-husband, Charles, a gynecologist who impregnated at least one infertility patient the old-fashioned way, is in prison. Margot bought Penthouse B with her divorce settlement, then invested the rest with Bernie Madoff.
The resulting genteel poverty leads Margot to invite Gwen-Laura to share her apartment and split costs. Gwen accepts Charles’s collect calls from the hoosegow even as she obligingly listens to Margot’s rants about male treachery. In return, Margot lectures her on how best to land a new beau. “Pretend there’s a lapse in the conversation,” Margot advises. “You say, ‘I have an interesting situation in my own family: My sister’s husband was an obstetrician specializing in getting women pregnant, but it was more like a one-man sex ring.’ Say that. And say ‘gynecologist.’ Guys love that. You can’t lose.”
When Gwen demurs, Margot persists. “We have to move forward, both of us. What if I was stuck in the past, crying every day about my stolen money?”
In the spirit of moving forward, Margot leases a spare room to Anthony, a young, handsome, unemployed banker who’s a whiz at baking cupcakes. Anthony turns out to be the pilot fish for an even zanier-than-usual cast of characters, all of whom troop through Penthouse B with loopy abandon. Next comes Anthony’s sister Olivia, a temporarily disgraced au pair with an entourage of her own (her employer-turned-paramour, her new single-mother boss, her infant charge). Then Charles, out on parole, weasels his way into the Batavia (he sublets a kitchenless first-floor studio) and then into an ad-hoc twice-weekly supper co-op with Anthony, Gwen, and Margot.
Soon they’re all meeting Charles’s illicit “spawn”—Chaz, a millinery major at the Fashion Institute of Technology—whom Anthony found on Facebook. As the good-natured chaos edges dangerously close to sitcom lunacy, the reader begins to sympathize more and more with Gwen’s passivity: With so much action and confusion underfoot, why bother venturing out of the apartment at all?
In a 2012 essay Lipman wrote about her own early widowhood and the writing of The View from Penthouse B. She explains that, like Gwen, she was in no rush to date after the death of her greatly beloved husband two years ago. But as long as Gwen stayed home, the novel “was in danger of what in fiction workshops we call stasis.” Gamely, Lipman rolled up her sleeves: “I knew what I had to do: send her out and eventually get her laid, despite her disinclination.”
With Gwen-Laura boldly going where her creator was reluctant to follow, The View from Penthouse B picks up steam. Lipman dipped a toe or two in online-dating waters, and her wicked glee at what she found there brings the book back to life. The cautious ad Gwen eventually composes draws a predictably horrible (and hilarious) series of responses, and the men she goes out with are duds. Lipman has great fun with the entire 21st-century cyberdating juggernaut. She makes poor Gwen sit through a three-hour seminar called “Fine, I’ll Go Online” (led by a harridan who insists her pupils adopt food usernames; her own is DeepDishApplePie), and she deftly weaves in a subplot involving Craigslist Missed Connections. But this is, after all, a romantic comedy, and a connection must be made.
At the end of a sisters-only dinner in which Margot confesses she’s back together with Charles—“People change….Maybe even a person can go into prison and come out a different man”—Gwen drops a bombshell of her own. “I met someone,” she says. Of course he is a widower and a perfect gentleman; of course he takes things very, very slowly; of course the chaos of Penthouse B fazes him not a bit. Of course their relationship blossoms and grows. “I am realistic,” Gwen-Laura says, reflecting a bit as she settles into a second chance at happiness. “I have my moments and some might say my charms, but still, not so many men have taken a luminous and steadfast shine to Gwen-Laura Considine Schmidt…. All I’m saying is, I am most appreciative.” Nuptials are planned. This, of course, is how romantic comedies are required to end, and if Gwen’s suitor seems a wee bit too good to be true, it’s churlish to complain.
Unfortunately, Lipman muddies her finale with a bewildering metafictional gimmick. The book we’re reading turns out to have been written by Gwen herself. A bogus “acknowledgements” section purports to wrap up all the subplots but still leaves several of the more intriguing characters (whatever became of the au pair who ran off with her boss?) twisting in the wind. Instead of sweeping readers away along with Gwen, Lipman fashions an ending that inadvertently calls attention to the novel’s many loose threads. She may have been striving for a doubly significant finish—a dénouement that’s both realistic and romantic—but the book’s imperfections feel like blemishes rather than badges of realism, and the fairy tale ending is unearned. In the end, the reader is left pondering all the ways Gwen-Laura might improve her writing, instead of sighing with happiness at the wedded bliss that lies ahead.