What happens when a writer lays the groundwork for a story and then bulldozes the foundation? About halfway through Elinor Lipman’s latest comic novel, "Good Riddance," a central conceit suddenly disappears when an object that fueled tension between two main characters is destroyed.
Does it matter? Lipman tells you straight up in her title. In truth, she’s pulling off a clever trick, though it may not be evident until the last page.
Daphne Maritch, a 40-something Manhattanite at loose ends, receives a posthumous gift from her mother: a 1968 New Hampshire high school yearbook. For reasons that will soon be revealed, her mother – a beloved teacher at the school – attended every reunion of that class, making catty comments about certain students and weird imperceptible symbols about others in the margins of the yearbook. Daphne decides, in a most 2019 move, that the item does not "spark joy," and chucks it down the garbage chute.
When Daphne’s neighbour Geneva Wisenkorn – with her avoirdupois and loud sartorial choices, surely one of Lipman’s most outré characters – plucks the book from the trash and figures out what the hieroglyphics signal, she sets off a farcical plot. Geneva says she’s a filmmaker and wants to make a documentary about the class of 1968 and Daphne’s mother’s involvement with them. But given her lacking oeuvre and her amateur financier (her father), she’s more of a deus ex machina who convinces Daphne to take some action on behalf of her own life.
Meanwhile, things get messy. Daphne starts and stops a relationship with another neighbour, travels to New Hampshire to stalk one of her mother’s former students, finds her widower father moving to New York City, decides to become a chocolatier then abandons that path, argues with her sensible sister, sings a "woe is me" chorus so often you want to change your Daphne Channel to something more varied. The characters in "Good Riddance" don’t necessarily develop; some of them seem to exist only as chess pieces. Daphne functions as the queen, moving any way she likes, but few of her moves make sense as part of a larger theme.
It would be easy, and not messy at all, to say this isn’t Lipman’s best novel. (For the record, two of my favourites are "My Latest Grievance" and "On Turpentine Lane," both of which also feature first-person female narrators but have sharper plots.) However, when you come to the end of "Good Riddance," you might disagree, and you’ll definitely be delighted. Can an entire book function as a shaggy-dog story?
My answer is yes, although for me that twist ending wasn’t necessarily worth the trip. What was: Lipman’s portrait of Daphne, a modern woman who isn’t tidily contemporary, isn’t firmly set on any sort of trajectory, whether personal or professional. Despite her complaining, Daphne is an intriguing heroine, and if you love Lipman’s work, you may love her, too.