We gave it a C+
What does a woman want?” asked Freud, who had a theory but didn’t have a clue. The answer, according to The Way Men Act, the new novel by Elinor Lipman (author of Then She Found Me), is that a woman wants ”a sleeveless flapper dress, milky chiffon over peach silk with a black silk rose on one shoulder and black beading”; she wants a relationship; and, failing that, she wants to talk a lot about other women’s relationships. For all I know she may even want to read this book, a sort of romance novel for college-town liberals and flustered feminists, a breezy, brazen book with a heart of mush.
It has begun to dawn on the sassy 30-year-old narrator, Melinda LeBlanc, that she’s no longer a high school cheerleader. Dates are no longer handed to her on a platter; she has to forage. She’s good at what she does-flower arranging — but: ”Work was no substitute for love at my age, and anyone who thought so should let her subscription to Ms. magazine run out.”
Having acquired a nagging sense of failure instead of a college degree or a husband, she has moved back in with her mother in her hometown of Harrow, Mass., which could be mistaken for Northampton, where Lipman lives. It’s a ”gentrified college town (cappuccino machines, poetry readings, bike paths)” where academics and other consumers of upscale experiences indulge in a sanitized version of a ”Left Bank life-style” — no garrets, bedbugs, absinthe, or art, but artiness, croissants, and adultery, at least.
Or at most, as far as Melinda’s concerned. She works at a flower shop called Forget-Me-Not and nourishes something between a grudge against and a crush on Dennis Vaughan, a high school classmate who has a fly-fishing boutique and who backed off from her after one night of love. All the other men who enter her life seem to follow in his retreating footsteps. As for the issue raised by the title, the way men act is insensitively. Generations pass, but loutishness abideth forever.
On the other hand, the problem might be — in one case — a Failure to Communicate. This is slowly but easily fixed, and we end up with a sputtering, happily-ever-after contrivance. Along the way the novel flirts with material daring by Bible Belt standards. It’s worth mentioning — just barely — that Dennis is black, that his black ex-wife left him for a woman, that a woman student serving as a nude model for an art professor masturbates while posing in an effort to seduce him. But Lipman takes no real chances and offers no real surprises. The book never quite rises to its occasions. The chic subversion of a plain old New England town might have inspired some farce on the order of Peter DeVries; the self-absorption of all concerned might have earned some mordant irony of a Dawn Powell caliber; Lipman manages only to be arch. Still, if this is basically a conventional book, it’s also cheerfully unpretentious. If it’s not really about the way men act, it’s a leading authority on the way women — or some women — think, talk, grope, cope, and fight back. C+