One of the blurbs on the inside cover of Elinor Lipman's novel, The Inn at Lake Divine, compares her writing to Mary Wesley and Laurie Colwin. I've read the former but not yet the latter (have a few of her books on hand, however). Although it has a contemporary (actually mid-1970s, maybe that isn't quite so contemporary anymore?) setting, I can see the comparison to Mary Wesley. I'll further add Clare Chambers and Barbara Trapido to the list of women writers of smart, witty fiction which often has a dash (or sometimes more) of romance to them who remind me of Lipman's work (or vice versa).
I'm not sure I would call The Inn at Lake Divine a charming sort of read. It is, but it's a little bit sassier. Well, Natalie Marx is a sassy character, one you will root for and appreciate. Maybe it is being an independent woman of the 1970s who is bright and obviously happy in her own skin. Not just a young woman, but a young Jewish woman.
But to go back to the beginning of the story we have to backtrack to 1962 when Natalie's mother inquires about the possibility of staying in a Vermont resort called the Inn at Lake Divine.
"Croquet on the lawn, the Vermont vacation guide had said; rowboats, sundown concerts on Saturday nights; a lifeguard, a dock, a raft, a slide."
Surely the Inn is the height of luxury in 1962 for a nice, middle class family like the Marxes--a mother who works in real estate, a father who is a fruit and vegetable distributor and two lovely daughters. The world might have been on the cusp of a social revolution but up in Vermont, the Berrys, particularly Mrs. Berry find that, ahem, those who feel most comfortable at their Inn are Gentiles. Families they cater to every year as they so often return again and again. My house is your house sort of thing, but maybe not if you're Jewish.
For ten-year-old Natalie this is most confusing.
"I hadn't known up to that moment that I had a surname that was recognizably Jewish, or that people named Marx would be unwelcome somewhere in the United States because of it."
There comes a moment in every child's life, no matter how little or how much religion plays a part, where the realization dawns that there are people in the world who are not the same as us. For Natalie it's not just a matter of being different, but being pinpointed and set aside and not accepted because she is Jewish. For a child who has just come off an Anne Frank obsession, this isn't just a little perplexing but it is unsettling as well. What's a girl to do, but match hurt with hurt. So a few years later she calls and then sends a card anonymously to Ingrid Berry--a sort of mild (not very public) shaming so to speak. Of course, all unbeknownst to her own family.
And then comes the opportunity to visit the Inn as a guest. She inveigles her way into the Fife's family vacation. The Fifes are one of those families who return to the Inn every year-- they really are just like family to the Berrys. It's an eye opening experience for Natalie in more ways than one. She discovers her friends' family (both annoyingly and amusingly) is quite Mary Poppinish. And she gets to see, or thinks she experiences, a little anti-semitism up close and personal. It both is and isn't what she expected.
As most youthful friendships are wont to do, Natalie and Robin go their separate ways. It's a chance meeting a dozen or so years later that will throw the two young women together once again--destination: the Inn at Lake Divine. Robin is due to marry the elder Berry son. This time Natalie's stay at the Inn will be most welcome in one of the most unusual and unexpected ways.
Did I say this was a romance? It is, a romantic comedy. Despite a tragedy that brings three seemingly disparate families together, Lipman pulls it all off with the lightest of touches. This isn't a Romance novel per se, and not Chick-lit in the way we know it now, though it does revolve around relationships. It goes beyond that, however. It has to do with what makes a family tick, how we see ourselves and others around us. And for the era in which it's set, it's a story of enlightenment and acceptance.
I love Natalie. She's honest and unapologetic. She's not a 'type' or a stereotype. She's no-nonsense and that's the sort of romance this is. Thoroughly satisfying and hugely entertaining. It was a nice light read, but a smart-light read. I loved the 'Jewishness' to the story, too. I loved the cultural references and the clash of cultures and ideas, never heavy-handed but very knowing.
I'm going to have to read more by Elinor Lipman. It was just my sort of 'story with a dash of romance'. I've also been working on Christina Courtenay's Trade Winds set in 19th century Sweden, which is much more traditional but very low key. Barely a hundred pages in and just a kiss or two has been exchanged. A slow burning romance? We'll see how it goes.