“On Turpentine Lane” by Elinor Lipman

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“On Turpentine Lane” sat on my TBR pile for eighteen months. I bought it in a fit of enthusiasm after reading “Isabel’s Bed”.  I’ve looked at it a few times since then and gone, “I want to read that but not today.” I finally picked up because it qualified as my book for a reading challenge,

It wasn’t the kind of book I’d expected. It was a light, mildly amusing comedy of manners kind of book but I found myself struggling with it because I found it hard to empathise with a privileged white middle-class, university educated woman in her thirties who was so hapless.

Her haplessness was fundamental to the humour of the book so letting it irritate me was self-defeating. Her haplessness is quite plausible. She’s conflict-averse, trusting, committed to her job and looking for a quiet life. I’d probably like her if I met her. Yet I find myself irritated by her inability to use the advantage she has, which says more about me than about Elinor Lipman’s writing.

About a third of the way through the book, the lights went on – flashing LED lights – spelling out IT’S A ROMANCE, DUMMY.

That explains why the heroine is intelligent, well-educated, slightly bland and completely hapless – so she can come into her own by getting together with the right guy.

Suddenly, it was all clear.

The contract with the reader is that the woman should be nice, maybe too nice for her own good when it comes to dealing with her self-absorbed, hippy-boy-man-at-41 boyfriend, so that the reader can root for her and hope she’ll smell the coffee and find someone worthy of her.

I got distracted by the bullying sexism or her employer, the apparently dark history of the house she’s recently bought and my underlying lack of empathy for a woman so used to be being loved and protected by her family that she lacks basic survival skills.

I felt like someone reading the start of a werewolf novel and wondering why the characters, who seem prone to physical aggression when resolving status-related conflicts, are stressing about how close the next full moon is.

Once I settled back and let the romance roll with the appropriate level of readerly collusion. with what the author is doing, I started to enjoy myself more.

“On Turpentine Lane” is an odd mix of ingredients that never quite come together convincingly. Crises are triggered around apparent financial improprieties at work, mysterious deaths in the heroines house and a mid-life crisis separation between her parents. These crises stand side by side like plates spinning on poles rather than building to anything. There is no character development to speak of but there is a slow, sometimes enjoyable slide towards happy-ever-afterdom.

I never did get to feel any empathy for the heroine but my reflex-animosity for her lessened as I understood her family dynamic.

“On Turpentine Lane” was well-executed entertainment that I’m now certain I’m not the target demographic for.

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