“Isabel’s Bed” by Elinor Lipman

isabels bed book cover“Isabel’s Bed” is a gentle, amusing, charter-driven read, filled with kindness and comedy that lifted my spirits. It deals honestly but sympathetically with the story of Harriet Mahoney, a wannabe writer running for cover from a recently failed twelve-year relationship with a man she now sees has always been a jerk.

Although the story is told from Harriet’s point of view, she is one of the most ordinary and most passive characters in a novel which is dominated by colourful, larger than life people. Yet Harriet does not fade into the background or become just a cypher for observing more interesting people. In a way, the whole book is about her building a more solid understanding of herself and acting upon it.

Harriet takes refuge with Isabel, a woman who’s notoriety Harriet is unaware of when she agrees to ghostwrite her autobiography in exchange for living in Isabel’s house for a year.

Isabel is funny and smart and totally overwhelming. The dialogue in the scenes she’s in sparkles. I found her extraordinary and yet completely convincing. She is a woman who takes charge of her life and lives by her own rules. She is Harriet’s opposite and so finds Harriet novel and intriguing. The friendship that builds between the two woman is drawn with a light touch that gives it credibility and emotional value.

Harriet has a low simmer, never quite getting to the boil, relationship with Isabel’s handy-man/driver. which manages to avoid rom-com clichés and serves mostly to help Harriet understand what had been missing in her previous twelve-years-too-long relationship.

I enjoyed the sideways glance into writers and writing that the novel provides. Harriet writes to escape from her life. Being a writer is a transformational fantasy for her. We see that it is not the writing itself that motivates Harriet but the opportunity to be seen as a writer in her local writers’ group, which sustains her dream by listening with attention and providing encouraging feedback.

Harriet is competent rather than talented at writing. Her first draft of the autobiography is so bland and dull and so not Isabel, that Isabel has a go at re-writing the piece “to make it sound more like me”. Isabel is a natural raconteur and produces an opening to the autobiography that is witty, energetic and gives a strong sense of her personality. The contrast between the two pieces is the start of Harriet coming to understand that writing might not be her route to personal fulfilment

The ending of the novel made me smile. It was unexpected yet realistic. One of those things that makes everything click into place so that you say, “That’s so true and obvious. How did I not see that coming?”

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