The Family Man
Embarking on my course of light reading at the end of a busy semester, I picked up Elinor Lipman’s The Family Man and enjoyed it all the way to the end.
I love the irony of the title, that the main character, Henry, becomes a “family man” years after divorcing his wife for adultery and giving up custody of his adopted daughter, Thalia, to a new stepfather, whose attorneys painted a picture of him as an unfit father, mostly due to the face that after divorcing Denise, he finally admitted to being homosexual. The action of the story takes place after the stepfather’s, Glenn’s, death, when Denise comes to Henry for help with her two stepsons, who are trying to evict her from the New York city apartment she shared with their father. Henry, a wealthy former lawyer, is nice to everyone, and his former ex-wife is no exception.
The charms of the novel are hard to detach from their context. I think this is largely because Henry’s reactions are typically quite understated. When Henry meets Thalia for the first time as an adult, he knows the terms of Glenn’s will, so he is touched that Thalia doesn’t appear to want anything from him. He thinks “Thalia lied to me so I wouldn’t worry about her dead-end job and her nineteenth-century plumbing” and “he feels a stinging behind his eyes.”
When Henry remembers his mother meeting his therapist, he remembers her explaining that “he wasn’t always gay….He was married for several years to a young widow” and asking “would you mind if I said you were the daughter I never had?” Henry’s response is typically mild; he says “for someone her age and background, I accept that as her way of saying we both read the arts section before the sports page.”
When Henry falls in love, he helps his new partner, Todd, come out to his own mother by insisting that they immediately leave the place where they’ve ordered dinner to drop in and meet her. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t call first,” says Henry. “And we can role-play on the way over.”
None of these examples fully convey the charm of the book, or of Henry’s character. It’s important to remember that the book is about him–about how he becomes the sort of “family man” that everyone loves—because many women, and I’m certainly among them, will not be satisfied with the way Thalia’s story ends. She is a fascinating character in her own right, and deserves more than just to end up actually in love with a person she was hired to appear to be in love with, and having his baby. I wanted to see her take the New York theater world by storm. Instead, she provides Henry with more family.
I guess it’s a good ending for him, and he deserves good things. But I didn’t enjoy the ending. Oh well, on to the next one.