At 32, Faith Frankel has returned to the tiny Massachusetts town where she grew up to accept a job as a thank-you note writer in the development office of the Everton Country Day School. If that seems like a dull career path, Faith is actually in flight from her relationship with her fiance, Stuart. He’s decided to walk across the United States, although his motives might have less to do with philanthropy than with philandering. Dewy young woman drape themselves on Stuart in most of his Facebook posts. What is Faith to do but buy a dilapidated two-bedroom house on Turpentine Lane? Unfortunately, that charming house might also have been the site of more than one murder — and maybe even some sort of baby-selling scheme.
If that sounds macabre, never fear: Elinor Lipman applies her singular brand of warm zaniness to Faith’s dilemma in “On Turpentine Lane.” While our heroine struggles to find love, independence and the 411 on those babies, the novel’s fast, funny dialogue keeps things light.
Yes, that’s the Lipman way: alerting us to cultural wrongs even while entertaining us with her cultural zingers. Faith’s decidedly pink-collar job is threatened by a nincompoop former prep-school football-star boss. Those babies pictured in an album in her attic turn out to be biracial, and Faith’s investigation provides a portrait in miniature of our country’s race relations. Even the more benign subplot involving Faith’s parents and their marital woes has a sharp edge.
As Faith attempts to cope with her fiance’s return, her parents’ pitched battles and her employer’s nasty accusations, she decides to improve her finances by renting a room to one of her colleagues. No one could wish for a better, more thoughtful roommate, which is why it’s no surprise when these two move from sharing breakfast cereal to sharing a bed.
What is a surprise is how much drama attends this simple plan, how much goes on in even the tiniest community, how many twists and turns a seemingly ordinary life can involve. Lipman has taken lessons from our great chroniclers of the quotidian, from Geoffrey Chaucer to Jane Austen. The result, in “On Turpentine Lane,” provides a light but serious antidote to what ails us all these days.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
On Friday at 7 p.m., Elinor Lipman will be at Politics and Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. politics-prose.com.
On Turpentine Lane
By Elinor Lipman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 305 pp. $24