Our coastal winter is short, but when those gray chilly days descend, they seem way too long. That’s when I turn to two of my favorite writers: Elinor Lipman and Elizabeth Berg. Lipman, an enchanting author, born and bred in Massachusetts, has been called “the Jane Austen of our time,” because her books are witty, smart, hopeful and a joy to read. In nearly a dozen works of fiction, she has followed the unstable course of romance and family relations in books like “Then She Found Me,” “The Inn at Lake Devine,” “The View from Penthouse B” and “On Turpentine Lane.” Her latest romantic comedy, “Good Riddance” (Houghton Mifflin), centers on a woman who, following the advice of a decluttering guru, throws out a yearbook that had belonged to her mother, a high school teacher. It’s a charming story in which one woman’s trash becomes another woman’s treasure, with extremely entertaining results.
Forty-something Daphne Maritch is a New Yorker at loose ends. She’s moved into a small Hell’s Kitchen apartment after a short, disastrous marriage. She gets a posthumous gift from home: a 1968 yearbook from Pickering High School in New Hampshire. It’s dedicated to her mother, the late June Winter Maritch, who taught English there. In 1968, June was only 23 and the yearbook adviser. She was adored by her students, and, in turn — and for reasons that will soon be disclosed — June dedicated herself to them. She attended every reunion for 40 years, and marked the book with catty comments about some of the pupils (“Looks older than I do” was a favorite) and drew odd subtle symbols about others in the margins. Daphne sees it as “testimony to the unsympathetic, snarky side of my mother’s character,” and in keeping with today’s thinking, she resolves that the yearbook does not “spark joy,” and tosses it into the recycle bin, where her quirky neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn— a large woman who wears bizarre clothes — “rescues” it. It couldn’t have landed in worse hands. Geneva deciphers what the hieroglyphics mean and, claiming to be a documentary filmmaker, she wants to make a movie about the Class of 1968 and Daphne’s mother’s involvement with them. Daphne, fearful of what the project could disclose about her mother and the rest of the family, struggles to stop it and the lengths she goes to are clever and a lot of fun.
The storyline, which probes into Daphne’s parentage as well as her romantic past and future, is a bit archaic. Daphne’s ex-husband, Holden, an unethical WASP, seems to have only wanted her so he could get an inheritance. Daphne comes across as slightly Victorian, overly sensitive and rigid. Lipman, however, livens the plot up with modern cultural touches. Daphne’s love interest is Jeremy, a gangly 25-year-old actor with a job playing a high school student on “Riverdale.” For the role he has to wear fake braces as part of his character and whenever he comes on to Daphne, which is often, it’s easy to picture the young comic Pete Davidson (of Saturday Night Live fame) ogling cluelessly. And Daphne’s father, Tom, once a principal at Pickering High, now a widower, moves to NYC, and takes to big-city living with the glee and energy of a sitcom character.
“Good Riddance” is a light easy read but so endearing. It not great literature, but it isn’t what I’d call “chick lit” either. It’s a book that stirs up a very specific kind of modern joy. Daphne is a woman of today who isn’t neatly contemporary, and not firmly set on any sort of personal or professional path, but she’s an intriguing heroine who you are bound to adore.
And speaking of love … I fell quickly for Midwesterner Elizabeth Berg when I read the magical “The Story of Arthur Truluv” in 2017. Labeled “the perfect novel for contentious times,” it’s set in a small town in Missouri where a saintly elderly widower, Arthur Moses, reaches out to help his lonely spinster neighbor, Lucille, and 18-year-old Maddy who has been bullied by everyone much of her life.
Berg has written over 20 bestselling novels and when I heard her speak recently at the Savannah Book Festival, I knew I needed to read more of her books. I started with her latest, “Night of Miracles” (Random House) which brings back Lucille, now a popular baker, and Maddy from “Arthur Truluv.” New to the group are a regretful divorcee who’s moved from the East Coast for a clean start; a lovelorn waitress and her timid suitor, the local cabdriver and a young family facing a health crisis. Everyone is looking for love, or at least community; and all of course are interwoven in the way small-town dwellers are. Having read “Truluv” offers a bit of background and depth, but it’s not necessary to understand and like these folks. Like “Good Riddance,” “Night of Miracles” is not a difficult book; there are no complex characters or plot twists; there’s nothing to figure out. There is just simple, elegant prose and a sense of longing that is contagious and calming. You can almost smell the cookies from Lucille’s bakery, and what better solution — albeit temporary — to the nerve-wracking world?