Elinor Lipman

"My Latest Grievance"

(Reviewed by Guy Savage JAN 22, 2007)

"It was at that precise moment, on my seventeenth birthday, on February 1, 1978, that I saw it clearly at last. I had adopted a woman who stole, told lies, wore funny clothes, seduced college presidents, sneaked wine into the dining hall, read while she walked, and proposed to priests. I had saluted and indulged her quirks because unconventional behavior was the foremost quality I had been raised to admire. But now it seemed so undeniable and diagnosable: that Laura Lee French was, professionally speaking, nuts."

The narrator of Elinor Lipman’s lively, witty novel My Latest Grievance is precocious sixteen-year-old Frederica, the only child of Professors Aviva and David Hatch. The Hatchs teach at small private women’s university, Dewing College in Massachusetts, and they are also the first married couple to serve as rent-free dorm parents. When Frederica is born, they can find no reason to begin a "‘normal" life in a home of their own, and they want Frederica to be raised in the dorm atmosphere. Here Frederica becomes something of a dorm mascot, and for the first seven years of her life, her bedroom is a converted utility cupboard.

Over the years, Frederica goes from being the dorm “Hatch Baby” to eventually confidently giving guided tours to incoming students. On one hand, Frederica’s childhood—since it’s restricted to the campus—seems rather claustrophobic. But she’s also very much a product of the campus community, and even grows up with an “ID card” strung around her neck that allows her “entrance to all buildings and all meals, with or without a parent.” Since the Hatchs have no kitchen of their own, meals are all spent in the cafeteria, and the Hatch family usually meets there once a day—each with a tray of cafeteria food.
Frederica has no sense of a separation between the world of children and adults, and this is largely due to her parent’s theories on child rearing. Frederica’s mother—who even “painted nipples on her daughter’s Barbie doll for the sake of anatomical correctness” is “unconventional and high profile … union grievance chairperson, agitator, perennial professor of the year, and public breast feeder.” To Frederica, everything and everyone on campus is fair game. She’s no respecter of persons, and she’s also extremely curious. When the novel begins, Frederica discovers that her father, an “unappetizing specimen” was married--briefly--to another woman, Laura Lee French--before he had an affair with Aviva. Frederica finds it almost impossible to fit this new information about her parents into her life schema.

Circumstances bring the mysterious, worldly and glamorous Laura Lee French to the Dewing College campus when she lands employment as an improbable dorm mother. At first sight, Laura Lee “bore so little resemblance to any previous physical embodiment of a housemother. Her red-gold hair was long and beribboned in Alice-in-Wonderland Style. She wore sunglasses despite the dim lighting and was dressed in a leotard and matching wraparound skirt. Rumors of glamourdom were further fueled by her luggage, two steamer trunks which left the impression that she had been on the stage.” And while one jealous observer notes that “it’s a sign of schizophrenia when a person overdresses to that extent,” Frederica and her “fish bowl” life can’t help feeling excited by Laura Lee’s presence on campus, and she can’t wait to get the juicy details about the break-up, the divorce and the steamy affair that took place between her father and mother.

While Laura Lee views Aviva Hatch as "the other woman" who wrecked her marriage, Aviva sees Laura Lee as a woman who “play[s] up their so-called feminine wiles.”  Laura Lee--who keeps a troubled priest on the backburner as a last resort--is the complete opposite of Frederica’s mother, and while Frederica spent years wishing for a mother like Laura Lee, she soon learns to appreciate what she has. Laura Lee’s presence on campus changes Frederica’s life, and the glamorous newcomer serves as a catalyst for several catastrophic events. Soon Frederica finds herself in the centre of a scandal involving another secret adulterous affair, family politics, and even an attempted suicide.

As a fan of Elinor Lipman novels (The Ladies’ Man is my favourite), I was absolutely delighted by this story. It’s lighthearted, witty, and wise and contains Lipman’s usual generous view of flawed human nature. The biggest problem with the novel is in its protagonist, Frederica. In some spots, it’s a little difficult to imagine a sixteen-year-old acting with this amount of aplomb and self-assurance. Ultimately, Frederica is the one of the wisest characters in the novel, and certainly one of the most endearing—and for the most part, I simply forgot that she was just sixteen. When that fact reared up and caused a moment of disbelief, I soon found myself submerged in the delightful story once again. Lipman fans will not be disappointed in My Latest Grievance, and if you’re new to Lipman—a treat awaits….

  • Amazon readers rating: from 33 reviews

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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

Books into Movies:

  • Then She Found Me


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About the Author:

Elinor LipmanElinor Lipman was born (1950) and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts. She majored in Journalism at Simmons College. After graduating she wrote press releases for Boston's public television stations and edited newsletters for various organizations.

She married Robert Austin, whom she met on a blind date, in 1975. She enrolled in a creative writing class at Brandeis when she was 28, and begin writing fiction. She received the New England Book Award for fiction in 2001. Her essays have appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Salon.com.

She has taught writing at Simmons, Smith and Hampshire colleges (all in Massachusetts).

She and her husband have one adult son. They live in Manhattan and Northhampton, Massachusetts.

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