The View from Penthouse B by Elinor Lipman is at heart about “two dames–on the verge of something” to quote Gwen-Laura, our witty and slightly tart-tonged narrator. She is the middle sister, living with the eldest, Margot, and advised by the youngest, Betsy. Gwen’s husband Edwin died in his sleep two years earlier, not so long after Margot divorced her infamously and feloniously philandering husband Charles and promptly losing her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff.
Nonetheless she has the sumptuous Penthouse B in the Batavia, luxury Manhattan living, if only she could afford it. Sensible Betsy suggests Gwen rent her home and move in with Margot, sharing expenses. It makes sense and they rub along well together, though they must economize more than they like. But then Margot adds a third roommate, Anthony who is much younger, gay, and someone who excels at managing everything. He cooks marvelous cupcakes, teaches them how to use the internet, and pushes Gwen to try online-dating.
Meanwhile, Margot’s miscreant husband has been released from prison and is living in the same building, in a small studio. He is trying very hard to get back in Margot’s good graces and their economies are such that his contributions of ham and flounder are welcome, even if he is welcomed much less enthusiastically.
I enjoyed The View from Penthouse B very much. I can see it as a movie with Ellen Barkin as older, charming Margot; Laura Dern as the quiet volcano, Gwen; and Tia Leoni as the somewhat bossy know-it-all Betsy. Or some other suitable group of talented actresses with spunk, wit, and humor. It is a bit of a rom-com, even though it’s more com than rom, and the rom is heavily concentrated toward the end as the women transition from being nowhere near the verge of something to where they end up, “two dames–on the verge of something.”
The story is plausible, set firmly in the present and characters are well-developed. This has the makings of an excellent story but it is held back, I think, because the author wants to keep it on the light side. I think that is a mistake. There is real pain but when we get too close, the writer steps back and glides past, afraid to wallow. I think a book can still be humorous and uplifting without avoiding the deep pain and anger that is natural. I wish Lipman had let her characters go deeper. The book would have still been a full of love and humor, but would have had a more profound humanity.