The View From Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman

My introduction to Elinor Lipman was the humorous campus novel, My Latest Grievance. I read a few more of her books but they were fluffy and lacked the edge of Grievance. However, there was one more Lipman on my shelf – The View From Penthouse B – and I picked it up, needing some froth after a book I found traumatic. And I’m glad I did.

The View From Penthouse B is a farce. The story revolves around sisters Gwen and Margot. Gwen is unexpectedly widowed, and Margot invites her to join forces as roommates in Margot’s luxurious apartment. Margot has her own woes – divorced amid scandal (her ex, Charles, was a doctor who got caught in a terribly unsavoury malpractice situation) and then made poor by a Ponzi scheme, Margot is struggling to make ends meet.

Though we call ourselves roommates, we are definitely more than that, something in 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…  

As well as Gwen, Margot adds Anthony to the household. Anthony is handsome, young, gay, unemployed and a whiz at making cupcakes (which is fortunate because as Gwen points out, “We are a very cupcake-orientated household“).

There’s a raft of other characters but essentially they orbit around the trio. It is in the banter between Margot, Gwen and Anthony, that the story succeeds – you feel like you’re privy to their harmless gossip; looking over Gwen’s shoulder as she wordsmiths her online dating profile; and taste-testing Anthony’s latest batch of red velvet cupcakes. Although there’s much about the story that is over-the-top, the central themes – losing love, grief, loneliness and forgiveness – are not.

The relationship between the sisters is beautifully done, and Lipman captures all that is unspoken and shared between siblings. Gwen is an ally in discussions about Margot’s ex –

It’s good to be around Margot, an amusingly bitter ex-wife. She loathes Charles, so I join in… 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.”

And Margot gently moves Gwen through her bereavement in a way that only a sister could (that tricky mix of love, humour and pushiness that siblings can get away with)-

“I mean does he know I was recently widowed?”
Margot stared at me, a long, unhappy, corrective gaze. “Recently? Is that accurate? Because when a person says, for example, ‘I was recently elected to Congress,’ and someone asks when, and the answer is ‘two years ago’, it means he’s already running for re-election.’

Lipman avoids bitterness and snark and instead gives a story that is optimistic and satisfying (with a poignant and fitting end).

3.5/5 This book won’t win prizes or have you discussing its literary merit but it is thoroughly enjoyable.

On the joys of cooperative living, Margot observes –

It all evens out, each of us contributing our own talents. As a big fan of Louisa May Alcott, and after my second Blue Lagoon, I expounded one night on Bronson Alcott’s utopian commune. Eventually, I had to renege after looking up Fruitlands, because we weren’t vegans or transcendentalists or farmers. In fact, I have stopped using ‘commune’ even jokingly because Charles, being Charles, hears a note of promiscuity in that word.

4 responses

  1. This sounds old-fashioned – in a good way. It was only when you mentioned online dating I realised it was set now. I’ve not read any Elinor Lipman but this sounds fun, I like the focus on characters and the humour.

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