The Pursuit of Alice Thrift by Elinor Lipman
Rating: ••• (Recommended)
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Elinor Lipman’s latest novel, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, provides a romantic, but not sloppy story of a medical resident, Alice, and the unusual man, Ray Russo, who seeks her hand in marriage. Lipman explores societal expectations, and takes the concept of the attraction of opposites to its extreme. Alice finds dimensions of her personality unfolding as Ray pursues her. She seems to find herself through Ray and others. Lipman awards readers with a plethora of throw away lines that may make you laugh aloud. My favorite was when Alice reveals her ATM password: “edema.” Only a doctor would come up with that. Mother-daughter relationships get plenty of coverage on these pages, as well. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14 (pp. 98-107), “I’m a Normal Person,” that captures the dynamics between Alice and her mother:
With professional and residential upheavals looming, I didn't undertake anything socially drastic. I purchased a greeting card, a black-and-white photograph of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and wrote inside. Hi! I'm moving to my own place on Feb. I, an exceptionally clean studio in hospital housing. Will call when I get a phone. Or you can page me. Sincerely, Doc. I mailed it to First-Prize Fudge and wrote Personal on the envelope. I hadn't heard from Ray since I'd beeped my getaway from the bar near Fenway Park, but even I knew, in my uninsightful way, that between the lines of my cheerful tidings lay a bold invitation.
He didn't answer. I tried to remember what I'd written; I also tried to remember what traits he possessed, other than his willingness to abide my company, that made me want to resuscitate the friendship. He wasn't intelligent or attractive. He wasn't interesting, except perhaps as someone I might have interviewed—after venturing into a bad neighborhood with a tape recorder and a whistle—for an undergraduate sociology course. In his plus column I could write entertaining and outgoing and shares food. If I were prone to oversimplification and romance, I might say. Opposites attract, but that very notion seemed so unscientific, so puerile, that I dismissed it out of hand.
As my mother folded each of my undergarments into thirds and arranged them in my suitcase, she asked nonchalantly, "Have you ever heard, in your medical travels, of Asperger's Syndrome?"
"It's neurological. A form of autism, I think."
"Nicknamed the Little Professor Syndrome." She frowned at the compromised elastic in a dingy pair of cotton underpants and lobbed them into my wastebasket. "Sufferers have very high IQs—sky-high—but their social skills are nonexistent," she continued. "Your father read the piece, too, and we can't stop talking about it. He's been doing some research on-line and found a study at Yale." She walked to the closet door and asked me to face her. She put her hands on my shoulders, signaling, Pay attention. Head up. Make eye contact. "How are you today, Alice?" she enunciated in Beginning Conversational English.
I shrugged. "Tired. Depressed."
"Good," she said. "That makes me feel better." She went to her shaggy woven book bag and took out an underexposed Xerox, its pages stapled and highlighted in pink. "It was the cover story in last Sunday's magazine section . . . and now I'm quoting directly: 'When you ask them at first, "How do you do?" they will say something like, "Why do you want to know?"
They simply don't understand social games.' "
I said, "Are you talking about me? You think I'm autistic?"
She held up an index finger. "Wait, I underlined it. . . . Here it is: 'Asperger's kids cannot decipher basic visual social signals. This leads people to see them as emotionally disturbed. Or brilliant.' "
I took the pages from her and skimmed the opening paragraphs.
"Ring any bells?" she asked at my elbow.
I read silently until I came to ". . . a neurological disorder that disproportionately affects males," pointed that out as if it settled the matter, then asked, "Don't you think that if I were autistic, someone would have diagnosed it by now?"
"Not this kind! It was only made an official syndrome in 1994."
"And do you think a lot of autistic kids graduate from college summa and go to Harvard Medical School?"
She frowned. "I wondered about that, too. But you could have something less than a full-blown case. You could be compensating because Daddy and I are such extroverts that you learned coping strategies."
Had I learned to cope and compensate? I walked over to my bed, which was stripped to the mattress ticking, and lay down on my side, facing the wall.
"There are a lot worse neurological problems a person could have," my mother coaxed. "You could have been born with cerebral palsy or epilepsy or Tourette's. Asperger's is a walk in the park compared to—"
"I don't have Asperger's! And you're not qualified to diagnose anyone, either. First of all, mostly boys get it. Second of all, I'm a normal person who might be challenged in the personality department, but that's all. And how do you think it makes me feel to hear that my mother thinks I'm autistic?"
"Feel? Feelings are exactly what I'm looking for," she said. "There aren't enough in this family since Nana died. I want you and me to have what Nana and I enjoyed for sixty-two years, which is to say an exquisite friendship."
She picked up the pages again and flipped to another highlighted passage. " 'Consider Glenn Gould,' " she read. " 'The eccentric Canadian pianist, who died in 1982 and who retired from the concert circuit at thirty-one, was notorious for his bizarre behavior: He had a phobia about shaking hands, ate nothing but scrambled eggs and Arrowroot biscuits, and rocked incessantly at the keyboard.' " She tossed the pages onto my night table.
"I'm finding this very reassuring, because I know you don't have a phobia about touching people. You not only have to touch them but you have to cut into them and probe their organs and glands. Correct?"
"But let me ask you this—is the reverse true?"
"The reverse of what?"
"The reverse of a hand-shaking phobia. In other words, do you like to be touched?"
Did I? While I tried to remember, she jumped in. "Stop me if I'm getting too personal, but I've had a lot of free time lately to imagine what goes on inside the head of Alice Thrift. I mean, is physicality something you think about? Yearn for? Jump into with both feet when the opportunity presents itself?"
I said, "That's three different questions."
"And look how long it's taken me to ask you even one! Nana knew more about what was going on inside my head than I did. Even when I'd moved away from home, she knew where I was going, with whom, when I was menstruating, and what I was making for dinner. I could tell her anything, and she never recoiled, never shrank from any personal details. Her EQ was off the charts."
With her daughter maybe, inside their two-person cocoon. I didn't point out that Nana's so-called EQ dwindled in the company of her grandchildren. Julie and I were dropped off at her apartment when my parents couldn't find a baby-sitter, and it was understood that we would bring our own food, and then get tutored in contract bridge by displaying our hands solitaire-style on her card table.
I said, "I don't think a mother and a daughter should talk about personal concerns, because sooner or later the daughter is going to have to hear something she'd rather not know."
She smiled coyly and sat down on the edge of the bed. "When your father and I first met—"
I put my hands over my ears. She pried them away and snapped, "Don't act so autistic."
I said, "If you insist, I'll listen. But remember that I'm not Nana."
"I don't insist," she said, then plunged ahead: "Your father and I despised each other at first sight. I thought he was brash, rude, egocentric. He was getting his MBA, while I always fell for the boys who wrote for the literary magazine." She smiled a private smile. "Poets, of course. When along comes this guy—micro, macro, macho. All business, and I mean that literally."
"I've heard this story," I said.
"No. You've heard the sanitized version. What might be instructive is the truth: that I slept with him not too long after we met, just for the fun of it. Just to get it over with, just to be with someone who wasn't sensitive and artistic—without the slightest intention of falling in love. But that's where it happened: in bed. Well, there weren't any etiquette books that tell you where to go from there. You jump into bed because you want to be like those girls who hung around the Village, who had sex without looking back, and what happens? You wake up, happily twisted in the bedclothes, wanting to be Mrs. Bertram Thrift."
I blinked. "And your point is?"
"My point is that I could confide every word of this to my mother. My girifriends were too conventional—go steady, get pinned, get engaged, buy your trousseau, get married, lose your virginity on your wedding night in the Plaza. I knew that I could tell my mother everything, and she wouldn't call me a slut or, worse, dissolve into tears."
"How did you know she wouldn't?"
"Because of how she raised me. She wasn't ashamed of her body or her bodily functions, and that kind of thing sets a tone in a house. If one takes a bath and voids with the door open and if one's daughters can perch on the edge of the tub and have a conversation with their naked mother, some threshold is set." She lowered her voice to confide, "Once, right after her divorce, we spent a week at a nudists' colony in upstate New York, one that accepted children. Her friends didn't know. She wasn't a committed nudist, but she was curious. We didn't go back because she didn't particularly like the people, and I think, between you and me, she was looking for some male companionship at that stage. Ironically, it proved to be an unbelievably dull vacation. Everyone talked politics, everyone was married, nobody flirted, and everyone sagged." She smoothed her dark hair back toward its French twist. "I tried very consciously to continue that tradition and hold court in the bathtub, but you and Julie and God knows your father would close the bathroom door when you walked by. Maybe I should have tried harder."
"Because! I might have broken down some resistance. I might have made you more open, more physical, more . . . unconstrained. And Julie! I should have tied her down and made her bathe with me in order to demystify the female body so she wouldn't grow up to see it as a sexual object!"
I said, "I don't think it works that way."
"The point being—one of several points I wanted to make—that it's not too late. I'm here for you now. God closed the door that was Nana and opened the one marked 'Alice.' " She nudged me with her hips until I moved closer to the wall, then lay down next to me.
"Doesn't this feel good?" she asked. "Doesn't it make you want to talk late into the night?"
I said, "Not really."
"Go ahead," she said. "Tell me something. Anything. Big, small, as long as it comes from here." She rapped her fist against her left breast.
She waved her arms above both of us. "The sky's the limit. Your dreams and aspirations. Your fantasies. A handsome internist you spotted across a crowded room."
I could conjure only round-shouldered, myopic internal-medicine residents, married nonetheless. I said, "Well, you know it's always been my dream to do reconstructive surgery on patients in the Third World."
"I know," she said. "But why?"
"Why? Because in many cultures the disfigured are shunned. Imagine having the power to return someone to society and to rescue him or her from loneliness, if not total isolation or even death—"
"And this is important to you—rescuing primitive people from loneliness? Are you sure you'd be good at that?"
"I'd learn. I have ten more years of training before I'd be eligible to even—"
"I didn't mean surgically. I mean psychiatrically. Do you think that you have the interpersonal skills to be a humanitarian?"
I said, "You asked me about my dreams and I told you. Is that so hard to understand—someone who's born with a cleft lip makes her way to my clinic and leaves with a perfectly aligned vermilion border?"
"You're right, absolutely." She smiled. "What else do you want to confide in me? Anything more immediate? More Alice-centered?"
I closed my eyes and said, "No, thank you."
"I'm sorry. I apologize. I know that if it can be learned in a textbook, you'll study till you get it right, so what am I worried about?"
I said, "Well, here's something you can worry about: I almost killed a patient during a gallbladder operation this week. How's that for a good juicy secret?" I abridged the rest: the exhaustion, the retractor, the nicked hepatic artery, the hostilities, the sentence.
"Terrible," she murmured. "You must have been scared to death. But thank goodness no one died . . . and now, how humiliating to be watched like a hawk." She waited a beat, tapped my forearm to signal a new topic.
"What about your love life? That's more along the lines of what I was trying to elicit."
I said, "You know I'm working a hundred and twenty hours a week—"
"What I know is that it takes a special man to understand and to accept that. Probably another doctor, don't you think? Which is why I like the ring of hospital housing."
I said, "I work with doctors day and night. I don't have to go to a dance in the common room to meet any."
"Dances? Really? They hold dances in your new building?"
"No. And if they did, do you think I'd go?"
Her right arm crossed over her face and covered her eyes.
After a minute I tried, "Morn? . . . Joyce?"
She answered with a sniffle and plucked a tissue from my bedside box. After another interval I nudged her and said, "Okay. Here's an inside scoop: Once I'm settled in, I'm going to invite Ray over for what I'm labeling a housewarming."
"Ray Russo. The man who drove me to Nana's funeral?"
"Not the candy vendor?"
I said as a matter of fact, yes.
"Have you been seeing him?"
I said no, hardly, but he'd taken the day off from work to attend a total stranger's funeral, and this was my way of saying thank you.
She rolled onto her side, propped herself on her elbow, and peered at me. "You're beet-red. What kind of thank-you did you have in mind?"
I could have said, "Beans and franks and a video." I could have said,
"No comment," or, "None of your business." But she was stretched out beside me, still sniffling, still wearing black, and building monuments to sixty-two years of mother-daughter candor. So I said, "I'll probably make sandwiches and buy a bottle of wine, and then, if all goes well, I'll lower the Murphy bed."
"For what normal, sexually active people do on a bed."
She sat up. "Please tell me you're joking, Alice."
I said no, of course not. When did I ever joke? And why did the suggestion of me having sex render her flabbergasted?
She inhaled and exhaled as if exercising great forbearance. "Believe me. I'm not objecting to the sex. Far from it. I'd put myself up against the most broad-minded parents in this entire country. What I'm reacting to is 'First we have dinner and then we have intercourse.' It just sounds so passionless. So . . . autistic."
I said I wished she'd stop throwing medical terms around. As for passion, hadn't she just spent the last half hour bragging about her active dislike for my father, precoitally?
"Your father was a graduate student at Wharton! Your intended partner sells granular fudge out of the trunk of his car. I just don't see it. Is it convenience? Or desperation? Or—you won't like this one bit—pity?"
I climbed over her and returned to the closet. After much pointless clanging of hangers I called out, "You may think you're as broad-minded as anyone in America, but you won't acknowledge Julie's girlfriends, and you think I can't date someone unless he has diplomas framed in his office."
"Does he have an office?"
"Did he go to college?"
"It hasn't come up."
After another silence she asked, "Are you attracted to this Ray?"
The only acceptable answer was yes, so I said it: Yes, I was attracted to Ray. Pity had no role here, at least not on my side. He'd been very attentive and gentlemanly. There had been no pressure. Well, maybe he'd asked for a kiss after the round-trip to New Jersey, but that was hardly worth reporting since most people kiss as casually as I might order a pizza. But I'd been thinking things over. Ray was a normal man with healthy needs. Now it was my turn to signal that I was a mature adult, and ahead of me was the hurdle that mature adults have to jump.
She crossed to the closet and wrapped her arms around me. "Nana and I went round and round on this for years. 'Has she or hasn't she? Will she or won't she?' She was sure that somewhere along the line, at some frat party or junior year abroad, you lost your virginity. But not me. I always maintained that, if it had happened, I'd know. And now you've told me, in advance. On one hand. I'm depressed over your choice of partners. On the other hand. I'm thrilled that you're confiding in me now."
I said, "Actually, Nana was right. I had sex once in college; at summer camp, actually."
"With a man?"
I said yes, a counselor at Tattaho.
"Of course voluntarily. He paddled across the lake in a canoe, and we sat on the dock for a while and reviewed our sexual options, and then we found a spot behind the infirmary and we did it."
"And then what?"
"We discarded the used condom in the dining hall Dumpster, and I went back to my bunk."
"I meant, were you in love? Was this a romance? Was it everything you hoped it would be? Did you keep in touch after camp?"
I said no, none of the above. I hadn't enjoyed it, so I hadn't seen any reason to repeat the experience.
I stopped what I was doing—stuffing the overflow of dirty clothes into my bulging laundry bag—to wonder aloud, "Have you ever thought about how in every country, no matter how remote, in every culture, every religion, and every climate, people copulate? Since time immemorial, men and women—without classes or manuals, without anatomical diagrams or scented candles—have sought out partners for sex. I find it quite fascinating, and I think if it's so natural to every species, then I shouldn't have dismissed it out of hand."
"I see," said my mother. "So this upcoming date of yours is more or less an anthropology experiment?"
"Is that so terrible? I mean, isn't everything?"
She looked away, plucked another tissue from my bedside box.
"I thought you'd be happy that I was thinking about something that could be categorized as interpersonal," I said.
She didn't answer. Her shoulders sagged; her glance wandered back to the highlighted pages.
I tried to think of a topic that would cheer her up. "My new building has a laundry room," I tried. "And a health club with a juice bar."
"Which means what?" she snapped. "More venues for your research?"
Would I ever do anything right? Intercourse was wrong. Virginity was wrong. Socializing with a man below my station was wrong. I couldn't please my mother; surely couldn't measure up to a dead nonagenarian as confidante and bosom buddy.
I said, "I'm very tired. Maybe we should call it quits for the day."
She raised her head and shook off the burden of my company. "I'm not giving up. Who knows when we'll talk again. I mean really talk, like this, meaningfully. I don't have to like every choice you make—Nana certainly didn't when it came to me. Now we'll finish packing like the excellent team that we are, and we'll drive these boxes across the street and toast a new beginning. I brought a bottle of champagne." She smiled brightly. "We'll do a few loads of laundry, and you'll share with me your anxieties about next Saturday night."
I said, "Saturday night?"
"Your date! Your housewarming a deux"
I said, "I'd have to consider that date provisional because I haven't heard from him in several weeks."
She held up her hand in protest. "I refuse to be discouraged. You didn't invite Ray for dinner and sex because he's Ray. You invited him because he represents manhood, a physical tool. So if it's simply a matter of joining hands with a partner and jumping over a hurdle—there's plenty of fish in that sea."
I nodded and tried to look amenable. But I noticed that in the face of her eagerness to banish Ray and to substitute another token, I felt a tug of loyalty. Hadn't I promised to contact him when I got my phone? How clear it seemed now: Rapprochement was my responsibility, my move. I had interpreted his silence as lack of interest. But maybe he was sick and didn't have health insurance; maybe his office never forwarded my card.
He could be sitting by the telephone or his wife's headstone, gift-wrapped penuche at the ready, waiting for my call.
Was my mother right? Was I ill-equipped to rescue primitive people from loneliness?
The time had come to find out.
For an entertaining coming of age novel, enjoy reading The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.
Steve Hopkins, August 22, 2003
ã 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2003 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Pursuit of Alice Thrift.htm
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