By Elinor Lipman
Elinor Lipman’s latest novel opens with its heroine, Daphne Maritch, decluttering the small Manhattan apartment she’s moved into after a brief, bad marriage. Following advice from a magazine article, she holds an item left to her by her mother, June, to her chest to determine whether it inspires joy. It’s a 1968 yearbook from Pickering High School in New Hampshire, where her mother taught English. June used it obsessively and weirdly as a repository for her opinions about the class; Daphne sees it as “testimony to the unsympathetic, snarky side of my mother’s character.” She throws it in the recycling bin.
Let’s pause here to admire Lipman’s timing from a marketing perspective, even if it’s entirely inadvertent. Which it must have been, unless the author has a friend at Netflix who whispered in her ear that, in the deep of winter 2019, Netflix would have a new hit reality series about decluttering. That show, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” starring the best-selling Japanese author and pixie clean girl, created a national wave of decluttering within days of its release in January. “Good Riddance” addresses a question possibly plaguing some of the freshly divested: What if I threw out the wrong thing?
Daphne’s frowzy neighbor, Geneva Wisenkorn, plucks the discarded Monadnockian (a perfectly normal yearbook name in New England) from the recycling in their Hell’s Kitchen building. From a keeping-family-secrets perspective, it couldn’t have fallen into worse hands. An aspiring filmmaker with a poster of “Capturing the Friedmans” on her wall, Geneva wants to make the yearbook the subject of her next documentary (which would be her second, at best, since her first can’t be found anywhere).
The Monadnockian’s staff dedicated the yearbook to June, who was just 23 and their adviser. In turn she dedicated herself to them, attending every reunion from the fifth to the 45th and annotating the volume with bitchy commentary (“Looks older than I do” was a favorite) and mysterious symbols. Geneva is inspired by this road map to learn June’s secrets. When the generally incurious Daphne figures that out, she tries to get the yearbook back and, in the process, discovers more about her pretty, vain mother than she wants to.
The premise, which delves into questions of Daphne’s parentage as well as her romantic past and future, is old-fashioned, sometimes to a point requiring some generosity from the reader. Daphne’s ex-husband, Holden, a dissolute WASP, apparently pursued her only so that he could receive an inheritance. (If that was really a requirement, why not find a more economically attractive mate, and one game to the deal from the get-go?) Daphne comes across as a bit primly Victorian, prickly and unyielding. But Lipman dresses the plot up with contemporary cultural touches. Daphne’s new love interest is another neighbor, Jeremy, a lanky 25-year-old actor with a steady gig playing a high school student on “Riverdale.” The role requires him to wear fake braces as part of his method acting. Whenever he comes on to Daphne, charmingly and often, I pictured Pete Davidson, leering pleasantly. Then there’s Daphne’s father, Tom, once a principal at Pickering High, now a widower, who moves to New York and embraces big-city living with the wholesome glee of a sitcom character.
“Good Riddance” is a caper novel, light as a feather and effortlessly charming. It will not save lives or enrich them in an enduring way (as Marie Kondo can do; two years in, my sock drawer can attest to that). But the book inspires a very specific kind of modern joy. I read it fast, in a weekend, during which I did not find my social media accounts or tidying my house nearly as diverting as what was on these pages. Being more attractive than Twitter may sound like a low bar, but in these distractible times, it feels like a genuine achievement.
Taking a Break for Friendship
Marie Kondo, Tidying Up and the Ruthless War on Stuff
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