Excerpted from The Ladies' Man by Elinor Lipman. Copyright © 2000 by Elinor Lipman. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Elinor Lipman on Writing THE LADIES' MAN
In 1996, my then 86-year-old mother took me aside ("Come into the bedroom. I want to tell you something.") What she told me was, "Cousin Martha was seeing a boy, and they were going to announce their engagement at a party, and the boy never arrived. He was a musician, and later she found out he went to Hollywood to write for the movies." She confided this as if it were fresh news, not as if it had happened some seventy years earlier in the early 1920s.
Martha, the oldest of four sisters, had been born in 1900. She never recovered, my mother said, and although later beaus would propose, she never married. Of course I knew that part already, because Martha and her three sisters were already a family legend. All beautiful, only one sister had married; the extended family lived together in an apartment in Brookline, Mass.--a household consisting of one married sister, her husband, the one child of that union, and four maiden aunts, the extra being the unmarried sister of the saintly husband. It was not economic necessity, since everyone worked, but sisterly devotion, and adoration of the one child, a girl, who grew up, as she once told me, with five mothers.
I didn't want to tell that story, nor did I think that the story of anyone's broken engagement was the stuff of a whole novel. Later, I had an image that I knew would be the opening of my next novel ("In the months before Albert DeSalvo confessed to being the Boston Strangler, the three Dobbin sisters established their custom of arranging empty glass bottles like bowling pins inside their apartment door. They adopted the idea from "Life," from a spread illustrating how women living alone near the crime scenes were petrified and taking precautions.") I didn't know who these women were, or what their story was, but almost immediately I grafted that opening with the story of the broken engagement, and decided that the challenge would be to reimagine them as modern (and fewer) sisters, and begin with the unexpected return of the man who scorned the eldest.
The next step was giving the returning bounder a profession. "Musician" and "Hollywood" led to my thinking "arranger." I called the one arranger I know (someone who had contacted me about turning my first novel, Then She Found Me, into a musical) and asked him to describe what an arranger did. I loved (and later used) a phrase he spoke, " Really, what I like to say is we create the bed on which the song is sung," which I think suggested something to me about my not-yet-imagined character's frame of reference. Within a few sentences, he was talking about arranging commercials --jingles. He used the term, "jingle house," which I immediately fell in love with. He said, "The bible is Through the Jingle Jungle, by Steve Karmen. That'll tell you everything you want to know about the business."
The book was out of print, but Amazon.com found me a copy. I read it, underlined it, took notes; soon realized that I couldn't improve on the author's colorful voice or his terms--"Jingology 101," for example, which prompted me to put Nash in something of an instructive position, hence the recitalcocktail party. I wrote to Mr. Karmen care of his publisher (Billboard) for permission to put some of his words into my character's mouth. Soon after, my phone rang.
"Elinor Lipman," he bellowed.
"Yes?" I said.
We were off and running. He wasn't just a jingle writer; he was a hugely successful writer of classic jingles. ("Sooner of later you'll own Generals." "Nationwide is on your side." "When you say Budweiser, you've said it all." "Hershey, the great American chocolate bar." "I love New York." "We build excitement for Pontiac." "Aren't you glad you use Dial?" "Weekends are made for Michelob." At last count, sixteen Clios. For all his writing, negotiating, and deal-making, he gave me immediate, gracious, blanket permission to use anything out of his book or that passed his lips.
Eventually, I ran every sentence with jingle-writing content past Mr. Karmen. I visited him at his home and studio in Bedford Hills, New York, and called him, eventually, not just for verisimilitude but for plot turns. He supplied me with Nash Harvey's history (sideman, writer for a jingle supplier, freelance jingle writer down on his luck living on his AFM early retirement pension). When I needed a rationale for the character to be at a certain place at a certain time, Mr. Karmen furnished it. (For example: I needed Nash Harvey to show up at the TV station where Adele worked. But why? What plausible reason? Mr. Karmen thought for a few seconds and said, "Okay: He'll ask, 'who does your station IDs? Because whatever you're paying 'em, I can do it for less?'" When I needed a reason why Nash had got no more work from a particular jingle house, Mr. Karmen said, "He made a pass at an assistant copywriter who got promoted to head copywriter."
When I repeated to him that a friend of a friend-- young, hip composer of commercials--hated the term "jingle writer," and called his work, "sound design," Mr. Karmen retorted, "That's baloney! It's the jingle business. Anyone who has to say 'sound design' has an inferiority complex!"
I have two of his tapes (bearing his trademark slogan, "People don't hum the announcer"), 44 jingles in all: music, lyrics, arrangements, and production by Steve Karmen--and I listen to them more often than I care to admit.
No longer in the jingle business, Mr. Karmen is writing a musical for the theater, working at a computer keyboard instead of a piano. He demonstrates his state-of-the-art equipment and says with a smile, "My orchestra never gets tired."
1. Harvey Nash is certainly not the kind of man with whom most women would choose to become involved. Yet despite his oily loyalties, arrogance, and opportunism, he charms nearly all of the characters, to some degree, at some point in the novel. How does Harvey—now called Nash—make his way into Adele, Kathleen, and Lois' good graces? How does he maneuver his way into the arms of an intelligent, beautiful, and successful woman like Cynthia? What is it about this type of man that continues to be attractive to women and despite their better judgment they continue to succumb to his charm?
2. To what extent does the notion of good manners prevent the Dobbins from getting rid of Nash? To what extent are all three—on some level—curious about him?
3. How does fear threaten each female character's ability to act on her attraction to others? How does Nash confirm their fears? How does his behavior play a role in diffusing their fears?
4. How are the Dobbin sisters' loyalties to one another threatened by Nash's reasserting himself into their lives?
5. What role does Richard Dobbin play in the novel?
6. Perhaps one of the most hilarious scenes in The Ladies' Man is Cynthia's big party for Nash. How do the events leading up to the big night infuse each guest's entrance with tension? How does dialogue up the ante once the party begins?
7. How does Kathleen handle Cynthia's feelings for Nash? How does Kathleen and Cynthia's friendship effect the course of the novel?
8. Nash performs one notable and noble act in The Ladies' Man: he makes Marty Glazer jealous. What prompts this act of selflessness? Is it completely selfless? If not, how does his gesture endear him to us nonetheless?
9. How does Elinor Lipman keep us interested in so many different characters over the course of the novel? Were there characters you cared about more than others?
10. How do the characters in The Ladies' Man highlight different ways we approach—or shrink from—love today? What aspects of modern American culture make the pursuit of romance more difficult than in the past? What aspects make it easier?
11. Comparing The Ladies' Man and The Inn at Lake Devine
1. Author Anita Shreve has written, "I have not read an American writer who can do what Elinor Lipman does: take a poignant situation and transform it, in a moment of instant recognition, into something as wryly perfect as a New Yorker cartoon." What issues does Elinor Lipman leaven with humor in both The Inn at Lake Devine and The Ladies' Man? Why does humor work well in highlighting these issues in particular?
12. 2. Food plays a powerful role in both The Inn at Lake Devine and The Ladies' Man. How do characters use food to nurture themselves and each other? How do they use food to hurt themselves and each other?
13. 3. Both The Inn at Lake Devine and The Ladies' Man contain moments of tragedy. How are these moments treated in each novel?
14. 4. Which plot twists in each novel surprised you the most? Were the surprises believable? If they were not altogether believable, did it matter to you? Why or why not?
15. 5. In both The Inn at Lake Devine and The Ladies' Man, Lipman's characters find themselves in awkward social situations—for example, Natalie's confrontation with Mrs. Berry, Adele's discussion with Cynthia.) How do Lipman's heroines behave in these exchanges? Why do you suppose Lipman chooses to place them in these situations?
16. 6. Love can seem elusive—especially to intelligent, independent women over thirty. In a 1986 article that rocked the nation (and prompted a pointed response in Susan Faludi's Backlash), Newsweek asserted that a forty-year-old unmarried woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to make her way to the altar. How difficult is it to find love in modern America? How do Elinor Lipman's novels—charming, realistic, intelligent—restore our hopes?