Excerpted from The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman. Copyright © 2003 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.
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.
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?