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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 304 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42923-0
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis

In her newest well-tuned, witty, and altogether wonderful novel, bestselling author Elinor Lipman dares to ask: Can an upper-middle-class doctor find love with a shady, fast-talking salesman?

Meet Alice Thrift, surgical intern in a Boston hospital, high of I.Q. but low in social graces. She doesn’t mean to be acerbic, clinical, or blunt, but where was she the day they taught Bedside Manner 101? Into Alice’s workaholic and wallflower life comes Ray Russo, a slick traveling fudge salesman in search of a nose job and well-heeled companionship, but not necessarily in that order. Is he a conman or a sincere suitor? Good guy or bad? Alice’s parents, roommate, and best friend Sylvie are appalled at her choice of mate. Despite her doubts, Alice finds herself walking down the aisle, not so much won over as worn down. Will their marriage last the honeymoon? Only if Alice’s best instincts can triumph over Ray’s unsavory ways.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Excerpt

1

Tell the Truth

You may have seen us in “Vows” in The New York Times: me, alone, smoking a cigarette and contemplating my crossed ankles, and a larger blurry shot of us, postceremony, ducking and squinting through a hail of birdseed. We didn’t have pretty faces or interesting demographics, but we had met and married in a manner that was right for SundayStyles: Ray Russo came to my department for a consultation. I said what I always said to a man seeking rhinoplasty: Your nose is noble, even majestic. It has character. It gives you character. Have you thought this through?

The Times had its facts right: We met as doctor and patient. I digitally enhanced him, capped his rugged, haunted face with a perfect nose and symmetrical, movie-star nostrils–and he didn’t like what he saw on the screen. “Why did I come?” he wondered aloud, in a manner that suggested depth. “Did I expect this would make me handsome?”

“It’s the way we’ve been socialized,” I said.

“It’s not like I have a deviated septum or anything. It’s not like my insurance is going to pick up the tab.”

Vanitas vanitatum: elective surgery, in other words.

He asked for my professional opinion. I said, “There’s no turning back once we do this, so take some time and think it over. There’s no rush. I don’t like to play God. I’m only an intern doing a rotation here.”

“But you must see a lot of noses in life, on the street, and you must have an artistic opinion,” said Ray.

“If it were I, I wouldn’t,” I said for reasons that had nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with the nauseating sound of bones cracking under mallets in the OR.

“Really? You think the one I have is okay?”

“May I ask why you want to do this now, Mr. Russo?” I asked, glancing at the chart that told me he’d turn forty in a month.

“Let’s be honest: Women like handsome men,” he said, voice wistful, eyes downcast.

What could I say except a polite “And you don’t think you’re handsome enough? Do you think women judge you by the dimensions of your nose?”

Next to me he smiled. The camera mounted above the monitor played it back. He had good teeth.

“I haven’t been very lucky in love,” he added. “I’m forty-five and I don’t have a girlfriend.”

“Is your date of birth wrong?” I asked, pointing to the clipboard.

“Oh, that,” he said. “I knock five years off when I’m filling out a job application because of age discrimination, even at forty-five. Bad habit. I forgot you should always tell the truth on medical forms.”

“And what is your field?”

“I’m in business, self-employed.”

I asked what field.

“Concessions. Which puts me before the public. Wouldn’t you think that if everything was okay in the looks department, I’d have met someone by now?”

I hated this part–the psychiatry, the talking. So instead of asserting what is hard to practice and even harder to preach in my chosen field–that beauty’s only skin deep and vastly overrated–I pecked at some keys and moved the mouse. We were back to Ray’s original face, bones jutting, cartilage flaring, nose upstaging, a face that my less scrupulous attending physicians would have loved to pin to their drawing boards. If it sounds as if I saw something there, some goodness, some quality of mercy or masculinity that overrode the physical, I didn’t. I was flattering him to serve my own principles, my own anti—plastic surgery animus. Ray Russo thought my silence meant I wouldn’t change a hair.

“Vows” would reconstruct our consultation, with Ray remembering, “I heard something in her voice. Not that there was a single unprofessional moment between us, but I had an inkling she may have been saying ‘No, don’t fix it’ in order to terminate our doctor-patient relationship and embark on a personal one.”

Reading between the lines, and knowing the outcome, you’d think something was ignited in that consultation, a spark between us, but I wasn’t one of those attractive doctors with a stethoscope draped around her shoulders and a red silk blouse under her lab coat. I was an unhappy intern, plain and no-nonsense at best, and hoping to perform only noble procedures once I’d finished my residency, my fellowship, my board certification–to reconstruct the soft tissue of poor people, to correct their birth defects, their cleft lips and palates, their cranial deformities, their burns, their mastectomies, to stitch up their torn flesh in emergency rooms so that no scar would force them to relive their horrible accidents. I’d hand off to my less idealistic and more affluent associates the nose jobs, the liposuctions, the face-lifts, the eye and tummy tucks, the breast augmentations, and all cosmetic procedures that make the marginally attractive beautiful.

Ray Russo should have consulted someone who would graduate from the program and set up a suite of sleek offices in a big city. I wished him well and sent him home with the four-color brochure that covers the gruesome steps of rhinoplasty.

Why did I take his phone call six months later? Because I didn’t remember him. He dropped the name of my chairman, which made me think he was a friend of that august family–as if he’d sensed I was worried about my standing in the department and my ambivalence toward my then chosen field. Of course, I am summarizing for narrative convenience. Why go into detail about our history, our motivation, our sweet moments, if I’m going to break your heart soon enough? I could add that I have a mother who worries about me, a mother whose motto is “Go for a cup of coffee. It doesn’t mean you have to marry him,” but I’m not blaming her. This is about the weak link in my own character–wishful thinking–and a husband of short duration with a history of bad deeds.

If I sound bitter, I apologize. “Vows” should revisit their brides and grooms a year later, or five or ten. I’d enjoy that on a Sunday morning–scanning the wedding announcements stenciled with updates: NOT SPEAKING. DIVORCED. SEPARATED. ANNULLED. CHEATING ON HIM WITH THE POOL-MAINTENANCE GUY. GAVE BIRTH 5 MONTHS LATER. IN COUNSELING. CAME OUT OF THE CLOSET–any number of interesting developments that reveal the truth about brides and grooms. Ray’s and mine could have multiple stamps, like an expired passport. It could say DIDN’T LAST THE HONEYMOON or SHOULD HAVE KNOWN BETTER. Or, across his conniving forehead, above that hideous nose, succinctly and aptly, LIAR.

2

Later Classified as Our First Date

Raymond Russo’s self-improvement campaign began with a stroke of Las Vegas luck: He won a free teeth-bleaching, upper and lower arches, in a dentist’s lottery. It explained his too-easy grin and his drinking coffee through a straw during what would later be classified as our first date. We were side by side, on stools at the Friendly’s in the lobby of my hospital. Conversation was stalled on my medical degree, which evoked something close to reverence, expressed in boyish, gee-whiz fashion, as if he’d never encountered such a miraculous career trajectory. Was it not flattering? Was I not psychologically pummeled every day? Insulted by evaluations that described my performance as workmanlike and my people skills as hypothermic? Was I not ready for someone, anyone, to utter words of admiration?

“I can’t be the only woman doctor you’ve ever met,” I said. “You must have gone to college with women who went on to medical school.”

“Believe it or not, I didn’t.”

“There are thousands of us,” I said. “Maybe millions. A third of my medical school class were women.”

“Well, keep it coming,” he said. “I know I was happy when you walked into the examining room. It helped me more than some guy saying, ‘Your nose is fine the way it is.’ I might have thought he wanted to keep me homely–you know–to reduce the competition.”

I hoped he was joking, but humor comprehension was never my strong suit. I asked, “Did I take measurements that day, or a history?”

Still smiling, he said, “You don’t remember me at all, do you?”

I said, “It’s coming back to me. Definitely.” Studying his nose in profile, I added, “I’m not a plastic surgeon. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“Just the opposite! Thanks to you, I’m going to live with this nose of mine and see how it goes. I know a couple of guys who had nose jobs–I’m not saying they were done upstairs–but I think they look pretty fake.”

I stated for the record–should anyone more senior be listening–“We have some true artists in the department. You could come up and look at the before-and-after photos. They’re quite reassuring.”

He waved away the whole notion. “I could die on the table, and then what? My obituary would say ‘Died suddenly after no illness whatsoever’? ‘In pursuit of a more handsome face’? How would my old man feel? It’s his nose I inherited.”

“General anesthesia always carries a risk,” I said, “and of course there’s always swelling and ecchymoses, but I doubt whether the hospital has ever lost a rhinoplasty patient.”

He smiled again. He tapped the back of my hand and said, “You’re a serious one, aren’t you?”

I confirmed that I was and always would be: a serious infant, a serious child, a serious teenager, a serious student, a serious adult.

“Not the worst quality in a human being,” Ray allowed.

I said, “It would help me in all the arenas of my life if I were a touch more gregarious.”

“Highly overrated,” said Ray Russo. “Any doofus, any deejay or salesman, or waitress, can be gregarious, but they can’t do what you do.”

It sounded almost logical. He asked if a cup of coffee was enough for dinner. Didn’t I want to move to a booth and have a burger? Or to a place where we could share a carafe of wine?
Elinor Lipman|Author Q&A

About Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman - The Pursuit of Alice Thrift

Photo © Chester Higgins, Jr./The New York Times

Elinor Lipman is the author of seven books: the novels The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Dearly Departed, The Ladies' Man, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel's BedThe Way Men Act, Then She Found Me, and a collection of stories, Into Love and Out Again. She has been called "the diva of dialogue" (People) and  "the last urbane romantic" (Chicago Tribune). Book Magazine said of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift,  "Like Jane Austen,  the past master of the genre, Lipman isn't only out for laughs. She serves up social satire, too, that's all the more  trenchant for being deftly drawn."
 
Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Gourmet, Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times’ Writers on Writing series.  She received the New England Booksellers' 2001 fiction award for a body of work.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Elinor Lipman

Do women as smart as Alice Thrift (B.S. MIT, MD HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL) fall for men like Ray Russo (traveling salesman without portfolio)

I’ve got my dukes up waiting for that question.  Yes, they do, everywhere I look. It’s the love her/hate him syndrome carried to an extreme.   Some readers get touchy about this, though:  They want women on the page to make good decisions, no missteps, meet and marry noble people, and for the character to see the warning signs that are evident to the reader.   Ray becomes Alice’s boyfriend through persistence and by default.  There’s no one else, and he tries harder and knows a good thing when he sees one. He’s a little sleazier than the average inappropriate guy, but I couldn’t help myself.  And I grew fonder and fonder of him as the story progressed.  Let’s not overlook that Alice was an excellent candidate to confuse good sex with love,  and perseverance as devotion.  Besides, don’t I say somewhere in the waning pages that this is a cautionary tale?    
How did you decide to make Alice a graduate of Harvard Medical School?
I went to college down the street from Harvard Medical School and attended enough mixers at Vanderbilt Hall to lose any awe I had of its residents.   Besides, Alice needed a very good school on her C.V. to make her downward spiral more poignant and inexplicable.  

You didn’t name Alice’s hospital....
Because there’s bound to be a few hideously unsympathetic and philandering surgeons on any given staff that will be seen as models for Alice’s attendings.   I expect people to sidle up to me and ask, “Is Dr. Hastings based on Dr. X at such-and-such hospital?” The answer is no; I made it all up.   I didn’t want to make up a hospital name, though; I don’t think the world needs another fictional “Boston General.”

Is there really an Einstein Drive in Princeton, New Jersey?
Absolutely.  I found it on MapQuest.    

Where did Leo Frawley come from?
I was at a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah and the most interesting person at my table was my friend’s hairdresser–male, Irish, straight-- who was one of 13 children and raised in Brighton, a working class section of Boston.  Leo the character popped up the next day.    I knew Leo, in the sense that I grew up in a Catholic city in St. Margaret’s parish, where a lot of my friends had siblings in the double digits.

What is THE PURSUIT OF ALICE THRIFT is about?
Friendship...and being rescued by it.  But then again, I think all my books are about friendship. And yearning. The more specific summary is:  It’s about a woman, a surgical intern, book-smart but socially inept, and how she finds her way through the world.  I might mention Pygmalion...  I usually add that the challenge was to take a hapless, clueless, humorless narrator and make her sympathetic and even endearing.   A friend of mine claims that I once said all my books are about “Who’s sorry now?”  I don’t remember saying that, but I liked it a lot.    

There are two mothers in The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, neither mother-of-the-year material.
Absolutely correct. I have a much better time writing difficult mothers than sweet ones.  I found a quote in Carol Shields’ biography of Jane Austen that may apply: “...Mothers are essential in her fiction.  They are the engines that push the action forward, even when they fail to establish much in the way of maternal warmth.” Alice’s mother has a penchant for the psychiatric and wants to be her bottled-up daughter’s confidante.  And then there’s Mrs. Frawley, Leo’s mom, at the far end of the maternal continuum–no tête-à-têtes or unbosomings for her.   Just the opposite:  Don’t ask/don’t tell.

Was Ray really faking it?  Or was there something there?
Don’t blame Ray.  I muddied the emotional waters because I grew fonder and fonder of him as the story progressed, and began to think, Maybe he means it.  Maybe he really loves Alice.   But I had put a frame around the story that was its raison d’etre, Alice saying at the end of the first chapter, “This is about the weak link in my own character–wishful thinking–and a husband of short duration with a history of bad deeds.”  I wanted to be faithful to my opening, which meant that neither Alice nor I, in the end, could succumb to Ray’s charms.  Of course I wanted the reader to wonder all along if Ray was sincere. And yes I think there was something there.  

So we're not talking about following any outline, then?
Can’t do it.  It takes me months to come up with an idea for a new book , so when the opening sentence or the premise finally suggests itself , I just want to sit down and get going.  I’m constantly puzzling over what comes next, what will my character do today and tomorrow, which leads to some trial and error, but also brings in an element of surprise–organic surprises, we hope; nothing that strains one’s credulity.   Eventually, with every book, I make notes that will help me bring down every ball that I’ve thrown up in the air.   My notes for Alice in the waning weeks of the writing said, “Bring back Mr. Parrish....Parents come to Boston...Mary?... A final word about Hastings.... Restage wedding.... ‘Have I mentioned that this is a cautionary tale?’...Epilogue. “  I saved that piece of paper.   

Your husband’s a doctor.   Is there any part of him in Alice?
A lot-- but almost purely vocabulary.    He can rattle off, “Herniated nucleus pulposus,” and not hear it as funny.   Because he’s a radiologist, he knows every bone and every inch of the human body, so he came in handy, as did his Grant’s Atlas of Anatomy.  He’s actually very funny, but he has a clinical bent that makes him say, “I was febrile and diaphoretic,” instead of “I was hot and sweaty.”  When Ray had his alleged vasovagal reaction, my husband was the one who suggested the cause:  straining at stool–and smiled when he said it.

How did you choose fudge as Ray’s career?
My husband and I were once spending a weekend at  friends’ ski house.  Our son was   5 or 6.  The friends, parents of three,  provided a babysitter whom they’d met at the ski lodge and had used before.    The kid arrived, a teenaged boy, kind of scruffy.   My husband asked if he worked at the lodge.  Yes.  Ski instructor? No--the snack bar.  “What do you do in the off-season?” my husband asked, unhappy already. “Concessions,” he answered. “My family travels around the northeast and sells fudge at carnivals.”    He might as well have said, “We’re vagrants and child molesters.”   My husband took me aside and said, “We can’t go out tonight.”  That episode came to mind when I needed a trade for Ray, which, shall we say, didn’t inspire confidence.  

Where did Sylvie Schwartz, tough cookie internal medicine resident, come from?
I had an across-the-hall neighbor my sophomore year in college who was brassy and smart and much braver than I was in all social matters.   And prematurely sardonic. Though outrageous, she was always entertaining, and underneath her bluster and bravado she had a very big heart.   

Is there anything else you want to add?
Maybe a word about alleged happy endings. And for this I’m quoting Carol Shields again, my literary hero, in her latest novel, UNLESS: “I have bundled up each of the loose narrative strands, but what does such fastidiousness mean? It doesn’t mean that all will be well for ever and ever, amen; it means that for five minutes a balance has been achieved at the margin of the novel’s thin textual plane; make that five seconds, make that the millionth part of a nanosecond.” I love that. I don’t believe readers should be left unsatisfied, with characters staring into the abyss, for the sake of literary coolness.









 
 


  






  


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Simply, wonderfully, memorably human and therefore complicated and compelling. . . . A total treat.” —USA Today

“A witty, satirical novel rich in wry, observant narrative reminiscent of Jane Austen’s deceptively benign satiric genius.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“The most perfect piece of prose writing to come along in quite a while.” —Philadelphia Weekly

“The literary equivalent of lemon soufflé, light, tart and delicious.” —Detroit Free Press
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

From the Bestselling Author of THE INN AT LAKE DEVINE

“Simply, wonderfully, memorably human and therefore complicated and compelling. . . . A total treat.” —USA Today

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, Elinor Lipman’s hilarious, delightfully off-beat look at modern romance.

About the Guide

Alice Thrift, a brilliant, Harvard-educated intern at a Boston hospital, is well aware of her shortcomings: “I wasn’t one of those attractive doctors with a stethoscope draped around her shoulders and a red silk blouse under her lab coat. I was an unhappy intern, plain and no-nonsense at best” [p. 5]. But Ray Russo, an itinerant fudge salesman who comes to consult her about a nose job, sees something that Alice—along with her parents and most of her colleagues—apparently miss, and with a self-confidence at once appealing and appalling, he sets his sights on winning her heart.

Against the backdrop of Alice’s grueling, humiliating tenure as the hospital’s least-likely-to-succeed young doctor, Elinor Lipman creates a comedy of manners as rich in the manipulations and delusions of courtship as Jane Austen’s classic novels. From the ultra-popular male nurse who befriends Alice to the smart-talking resident who takes her under her wing, to a mother with perfect social reflexes and grand nuptial dreams for her daughter, Alice is treated to a wealth of advice. Ray’s campaign to make her his wife, however, is what captures Alice’s attention until she discovers that his intentions are not quite what they seem.

About the Author

Elinor Lipman is the author of The Dearly Departed, The Ladies’ Man, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel’s Bed, The Way Men Act, Then She Found Me, and Into Love and Out Again. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Gourmet, Salon, Self, More, and Yankee Magazine. She has taught writing at Simmons, Hampshire, and Smith colleges and won the 2001 New England Book Award for fiction. She lives in Massachusetts.

Discussion Guides

1. Why do you think Lipman begins by giving away the ending of her story? What aspects of Alice’s comments about the “Vows” column entice the reader to learn more about her ill-fated marriage? When you read the column (or marriage announcements in other newspapers), do you, like Alice, long for some no-holds-barred updates on the “interesting developments that reveal the truth about brides and grooms” [p. 6]?

2. Alice and Ray’s first date [pp. 6–15] establishes the educational and social gap that separates them. Are Ray’s attempts to bridge the gap more embarrassing and inept than most “getting to know you” conversations? Do Alice’s amusingly blunt reactions make you more or less sympathetic to Ray? What does the incident with the waitress [p. 12] illustrate about Alice and Ray and their assumptions about social interactions?

3. Throughout his courtship of Alice, Ray sprinkles “facts” about himself and his dead wife [pp. 69–78, for example]. Do you think they are meant only to expose Ray’s calculated deceptiveness and Alice’s naiveté? To what extent do these details seduce not only Alice, but the reader as well?

4. Popular, good-looking, kind, and compassionate Leo Frawley is a nearly perfect man. How does Lipman make him an individual, rather than a stereotype? What does the dinner at his mother’s house [pp. 57–66] add to the overall picture of Leo?

5. Are Joyce Thrift’s concerns about Alice’s social graces—or lack thereof [p. 49]—meant to show her essential superficiality? What emotions and expectations shape the way she treats Alice? How do her attitudes and impulses differ from those of Leo’s mother? Is Alice herself aware of her mother’s positive side?

6. The story of Alice’s professional tribulations runs parallel to the story of her romance. How do the humiliations she suffers as a doctor influence her reactions to Ray? If she had been a star intern, do you think she would have fallen for his schemes?

7. When Alice asks him about his relationship with Meredith, Leo says, “Guys don’t like to label things” [p. 95]. Is this true of Ray?

8. In what ways does Meredith serve as a counterpoint to Alice? At what point do Alice’s feelings about the smug, seemingly serene midwife begin to change? What do the two women learn about each other when they deliver a baby together [pp. 227–233]? What does the event represent in terms of Alice’s social awareness?

9. Sylvie is also very different from Alice on the surface. Why is she able to break down Alice’s defenses more successfully than Leo?

10. Ray explains Alice’s decision to marry him as “pure animal magnetism”; Alice attributes it to Ray’s sensitivity to her loneliness [p. 243]. Which element do you think was more important?

11. After escaping from her brief, disastrous marriage to Ray, Alice sets up a household with Leo and Sylvie. How does this arrangement reflect Alice’s new acceptance of herself? In what ways have the friends formed what might be considered a family?

12. What role does the class difference between Alice and Ray play the novel? In what ways does each defy or exemplify class stereotypes? Does Lipman’s portrait of Ray counteract some of your own assumptions (or prejudices) about a man “without a bachelor’s degree, let alone an MD or a CPA after [his] name” [p. 53]? Is it likely that an upper middle-class, highly educated doctor like Alice would become involved with a man like Ray in real life?

13. Alice’s self-deprecating humor is one of the delights of the narrative. Would the story be the same if told by an omniscient narrator? What might be different?

14. Fast-paced, witty, and enlivened by a wonderful cast of secondary characters, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift is reminiscent of classic screwball comedies. If you were going to make a movie of the novel, whom would you cast?

Suggested Readings

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park and Pride and Prejudice; Elizabeth Berg, Say When; Laurie Colwin, Happy All the Time; Tim Farrington, The Monk Downstairs; Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary; Haven Kimmel, The Solace of Leaving Early; Perri Klass, A Not Entirely Benign Procedure; Anita Shreve, All He Ever Wanted; Meg Wolitzer, The Wife.

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