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Ms. Demeanor


Ms. Demeanor

With the pleasures of the holiday season in the rearview mirror and a long stretch of winter ahead, many readers will be searching for a lighthearted novel to help warm their chilly nights. They don’t need to look any further than Elinor Lipman’s MS. DEMEANOR, a knowing, genial story of how love sometimes emerges in the most unlikely circumstances.

When 39-year-old lawyer Jane Morgan decides to have sex with a law firm colleague a dozen years her junior on the landscaped rooftop terrace of her midtown Manhattan apartment building, she never envisions the ensuing train wreck that will derail her life. Spied across Seventh Avenue by a snooping, camera-wielding neighbor who claims to be a birder interested in “nocturnal species,” she is charged with indecent exposure and even finds a grainy photograph of her tryst in the New York Post. When she ignores the axiom about a lawyer representing herself, she ends up with a conviction that earns her 180 days of home confinement, the suspension of her law license, and the loss of her firm partnership.

"Lipman’s dialogue is crisp, smart and consistently funny.... It’s easy to picture the novel making it to the screen (big or small) some day, and readers will enjoy casting their favorite actors in the roles of Jane, Perry and the supporting characters."

Fortunately for Jane, her ankle monitor allows her freedom to roam the apartment building. On a trip to the lobby, she learns that she’s not the only convict serving out her sentence within its walls. Three floors above her lives Perry Salisbury, an art handler at an upscale auction house, whose impulsive decision to pocket a teapot lid in hopes of acquiring a baroque tea set for his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary renders him a housebound felon.

Jane’s identical twin, Jackleen (“Jacqueline” on her birth certificate), is a dermatologist who is also single. She supports Jane in her time of enforced unemployment, eagerly generating various moneymaking ideas that take advantage of Jane’s culinary skills, including TikTok videos featuring recipes lifted from a 19th-century family cookbook. Jackleen encourages Jane to enter into a meal preparation arrangement proposed by Perry, after Jane learns that he’s been subsisting on a diet of daily takeout dinners. Lipman tosses these ingredients into the pot and sets them simmering, all the while adding tasteful seasoning to the dish.

Recalling the adage about the way to a man’s heart, it’s not difficult to see how this business relationship based on “timing, geography, crime and punishment” will become something more. And without exposing too many of the twists of this plot-rich story, it also features a mysterious death, a pair of oddball characters with connections to minor Polish nobility, some hilarious machinations surrounding a green card marriage, and the complexities of Manhattan real estate. Through it all, Lipman perfectly captures the gentle rivalry and persistent angst of the Morgan sisters, accomplished professionals teetering on the edge of their 40s and facing a future without the comfort of a long-lasting relationship.

Lipman’s dialogue is crisp, smart and consistently funny. Referring to Jackleen’s efforts to employ Jane’s cooking skills as an adjunct to her dermatology practice, Jane points to her sister’s “need for another excuse to cover my food, to keep herself as the FDR to me, her WPA project.” As she’s considering whether or not to embark on a sexual relationship with Perry, Jane confides in her friend, fellow building dweller and single thirtysomething Mandy Zussman, and the following conversation ensues:

“The two of you, both confined. Lots in common. Lots to commiserate over. It’s as if you’re in a zoo, and there’s only two of your species, and he’s the male and you’re the female, so they put you in the same cage to procreate. You don’t have to fall in love. You just do it.”

“Not to romanticize it or anything…”

Fans of the Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building” may feel a welcome vibe in MS. DEMEANOR. It’s easy to picture the novel making it to the screen (big or small) some day, and readers will enjoy casting their favorite actors in the roles of Jane, Perry and the supporting characters. “Comedy is hard,” as someone once said. Here, Elinor Lipman makes it look effortless.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 5, 2023

Ms. Demeanor
by Elinor Lipman

  • Publication Date: December 27, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Humor, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0358677882
  • ISBN-13: 9780358677888