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The View from Penthouse B

by Elinor Lipman

Hardcover, 252 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $25 |


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The View from Penthouse B
Elinor Lipman

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Book Summary

Two newly-single sisters, one by a divorce, the other by a death, become roommates with a handsome, gay cupcake-baker as they try to return to the dating world of lower Manhattan in this novel from the author of The Inn at Lake Devine.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: The View From Penthouse B

Fort Necessity

Since Edwin died, I have lived with my sister Margot in the Batavia, an Art Deco apartment building on beautiful West Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. This arrangement has made a great deal of sense for us both: I lost my husband without warning, and Margot lost her entire life's savings to the Ponzi schemer whose name we dare not speak.

Though we call ourselves roommates, we are definitely more than that, something on the order of wartime trenchmates. She refers to me fondly as her boarder — ironic, of course, because no one confuses a boarding house with an apartment reached via an elevator button marked ph. In a sense, we live in both luxury and poverty, looking out over the Hudson while stretching the contents of tureens of stews and soups that Margot cooks expertly and cheerfully.

She takes cookbooks out of the library and finds recipes that add a little glamour to our lives without expensive ingredients, so a pea soup that employs a ham bone might start with sauteed cumin seeds or a grilled cheese sandwich is elevated to an entree with the addition of an exotic slaw on the plate. We mostly get along fine, and our division of labor is fair: cook and dishwasher, optimist and pessimist.

Margot has turned herself into a professional blogger — or so she likes to announce. Her main topic is the incarcerated lifer who stole all her money, and her readers were primarily her fellow victims. I use "were" instead of "are" because visitors to dwindled to zero at one point. The blog produces no money and has no advertisers, but she says it is just as good for confession and self-reflection as the expensive sounding board who once was her psychoanalyst.

When asked by strangers what I do, I tell them I have something on the drawing board, hoping my mysterious tone implies Can't say more than that. So far, it's only a concept, one that grew out of my own social perspective. It occurred to me that there might be a niche for arranging evenings between a man and a woman who desired nothing more than companionship. The working title for my organization is "Chaste Dates." So far, no one finds it either catchy or appealing.

Best-case scenario: I'd network with licensed matchmakers and establish reciprocity. They'd send me their timid, and I'd send them my marriage-minded. Might there be singletons with a healthy fear of intimacy versus the sin-seekers of I hope to find them.

Everyone I've confided in — my younger sister, Betsy, for example, who has a job in banking in the sticky, bundling side of mortgages — hates the idea and/or tells me I'm thinking small. She's the sister who is always alert to rank and ambition. Her husband is a lawyer who didn't make partner, left the law, and teaches algebra in a public high school in an outer borough of New York. You'd think she'd brag about that, but she doesn't. Occasionally I catch her telling someone that Andrew went to law school with this president or that first lady and neglecting to mention his subsequent career. I usually tell her later, "You should be proud of what he does."

"Algebra?" she snarls, despite the fact that, unlike the progeny of a lot of New Yorkers who spend a fortune on tutors, both of her children excel in math. Edwin was a public school teacher, so I expect a little more sensitivity. These conversations push Chaste Dates further into oblivion. Still in mourning, I am easily overwhelmed.

Margot is divorced from Charles, a too-handsome, board-certified physician with an ugly story, who calls our apartment collect from his country club of a prison. He was/is a gynecologist, now under suspension, with a reckless subspecialty that drew the lonely and libidinous. Patients came with an infertility story and left a little ruddier and more relaxed than when they arrived. Who were these women, Margot and I always marvel, who knew how to signal, feet in stirrups, that a doctor's advances would be deemed not only consensual but medical? Yes, Charles partnered with a sperm bank, whose donors were advertised as brilliant, healthy, handsome men with high IQs, graduate degrees, and above-average height. And, yes, the vast majority of his practicewas artificial rather than personal insemination. But for a few, the main draw was

Charles himself, a silver-haired, blue-eyed, occasionally sensitive man, the kind of physician women put their faith in and develop a crush on. Overall, it was lucky that Charles suffered from borderline oligospermia — in layman's terms, a low-to-useless sperm count. Did he know? Of course. We're not sure how he framed these trespasses, but some patients must have told themselves that a doctor's fleshly ministrations, midcycle, were donorlike and ethical in some footnoted way, imagining the top-notch child and possible romantic entanglement that his DNA could yield. His bedside talents were such, apparently, that satisfied customers came back for subsequent treatments. Luckily, only one procedure took, only one child was conceived, one son eventually revealed through due diligence. Charles might still be practicing amorous medicine, except that his unknowing bookkeeper charged the paramours a fee commensurate with an outside donor — five thousand dollars, the going rate at the time — and thus fraud of a punishable, actionable kind. "Fraud" on the books; "malpractice," "adultery," "grounds for divorce," and "sin" everywhere else. Margot left the day he was rather publicly arrested. Her settlement was enormous. She bought her penthouse, invested the rest catastrophically, and resumed the use of her maiden name.

Edwin died one month before turning fifty, without getting sick first, due to a malformation of his heart valves that proved fatal. One morning I woke up and found that he hadn't, a sight and a shock that I wonder if I've yet recovered from.

Even twenty-three months after his death, his absence is always present. People assume I am grateful for the memories, but where they're wrong is that the memories cause more wistfulness than comfort. It's hard to find a subject that doesn't summon Edwin, no matter how mundane. 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. I haven't seen much progress in two years. Keeping someone's memory alive has its voluntary and involuntary properties. You want to and you don't. You're not going to hide the photos, but neither will you relocate the images of his formerly happy, healthy, smiling face to your bedside night table.

Amateur shrinks are everywhere. "Ed wouldn't want you to be staying home, would he?" — to me, who never called him Ed. And, "If it was you who had died, wouldn't you wanthim to find someone else?" They mean well, I'm told. I think Edwin actuallywould be glad I haven't remarried, dated, or looked. He wasn't a jealous husband, but he was a sentimental one.

It's good to be around Margot, an amusingly bitter ex-wife. She loathes Charles so I join in. We enjoy discussing his felonious acts, a subject we never tire of. Hating Charles is good for her and oddly good for me. We often start the day over coffee with a new insight into his egregiousness. Margot might begin a rant by saying, "Maybe he chose to be an ob-gyn just for this very purpose. Naked women, legs open, one every twenty minutes."

The summing up of his character flaws often leads one of us to say, usually with a sigh, that it's just as well Charles didn't father a child inside their marriage. Imagine trying to explain his behavior to a son or daughter of any age? Imagine having a jailbird for a father. That, of course, reminds me that Edwin and I tried, but without success and without great commitment. For years, Margot urged me to consult Charles, but who would want to be seen by a brother-in-law in such an intimate arena? Knowing now about his modus operandi, that I might have given birth to my own niece or nephew, I am forever thankful that I resisted. Lately Margot is juicing up her blog by admitting that her ex is the once-esteemed physician-felon who was a tabloid headline for a whole season. As the subject tilts from the recession to his unique brand of adultery, she's won new readers. Though she's not much of a stylist, her writing is lively and her pen poisonous in a most engaging way.

Living here is interesting and soothing. It's a beautiful apartment with what Margot calls "dimensions." Hallways veer this way and that, so you can't see from one end of the apartment what's going on in the other. The building has doormen, porters, and a menagerie of fancy purebred dogs. Edwin and I lived more modestly in a ground-floor, rent-controlled one-bedroom on West End Avenue. The Batavia shares its name with a Dutch ship that struck a reef off the coast of Australia in 1629. Amazingly enough, most of its shipwrecked passengers survived.

I Next Considered

My once-reliable freelance job was writing copy for bill inserts issued by utility companies, the slips of paper that offered tips on insulating and reducing customers' carbon footprints. Occasionally I'd get to write 250 to 300 words about a heroic, lifesaving deed, usually CPR or a Heimlich maneuver performed in the field by a hard-hatted employee. When customers switched to e-bills, my assignments dwindled to nothing. Every day I read front-page stories about professionals combing every inch of second-fiddle job listings, and there I am.
I don't like to blame what pop psychologists call "birth order" for my situation and motivation. If I did, I'd have to accept that being the middle child has a major influence on how I approach the world and those gray areas that fall loosely under the heading "relations." Still, I wonder if some of my professional dead ends had to do with my growing up between perfect Margot and formidable Betsy.

I majored in education in college, a safe and appealing concentration — until I got into the classroom. Even as a student teacher, I dreaded every minute, every smart-aleck eighth grader, the smoke-filled teachers' room and its burned coffee, the married gym teacher who liked me and his guidance-counselor wife who did not.

I lived at home, in Hartford, which might have contributed to my less-than-amorous twenties. Like today, I helped around the house and read the classifieds. After my retirement from education at twenty-two, I took the summer off, sleeping late in my childhood bedroom, the empty parakeet cage and The Partridge Family poster reminding me that time had passed. I lunched with unemployed high school girlfriends who hadn't moved away, either. My father, one of dozens of vice presidents at one of the city's insurance company's world headquarters, gave my anemic résumé to what in those days was called Personnel, despite my objection that I didn't want a job because of nepotism or mercy.

Soon enough, when asked in a social setting what I did, I could answer "administrative assistant." My boss wrote the magazine-size glossy annual report and I typed it all up, correcting his grammar and punctuation. Within six months, he told someone in Personnel, whether out of admiration or annoyance, about my eye for typos, and soon I had my own cubicle, dictionary, thesaurus, and pencil sharpener, proofreading insurance jargon all day long in what felt like solitary confinement.

I lunched with my father almost daily until there wasn't a single cafeteria worker who hadn't heard him say a half-dozen times, "This is my daughter, Gwen-Laura. She works here now." I'd nudge him and add "Hisfavorite daughter" in such a way that always elicited a chuckle and at the same time signaled to our audience that Jim Considine loved all his daughters equally. It was at one of our lunches that he asked if I had any desire to get my own place. Margot, for example, struggling to make ends meet, had nonetheless found that garret in the Bowery. And Betsy, too, was happy living with people her own age.

I reminded him that Betsy was still in college, living in a dorm, so I didn't think she should be held up as a paragon of residential courage. I said that I did want to be on my own, a white lie I hoped would soon be the truth. Again, looking back, I wonder: birth order. Middle child. Brown-haired daughter between two hazel-eyed blonds. Maybe I needed extra parental attention to make up for . . . well, for nothing. Every one of the three Considine girls, we would discover after first my father's death, then my mother's, thought herself to be the favorite child.

From The View from Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman. Copyright 2013 by Elinor Lipman. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.