Elinor Lipman’s tenth novel, “The Family Man” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), is a Manhattan-set charmer about a happily settled single gay man named Henry Archer whose life is upended when he decides to reconnect with his grown stepdaughter.
Two decades earlier, Henry was closeted and briefly married to the zany Denise — a recent divorcee with a very young daughter, Thalia.
The only part of this mistake of his youth that Henry enjoyed was being a stepdad. When Denise remarried, however, her new husband decided Henry would be a bad influence on the girl and cut off his visitation rights.
Flash forward more than two decades. Henry thinks he is happily retired from his law career until Denise comes charging back into his life — her husband has keeled over dead just before Denise’s restrictive pre-nup would have expired and she turns to Henry for advice.
In the surprisingly small world that is Manhattan, Henry realizes with a shock that the receptionist at his local barber shop is Thalia.
Lipman has said she intended “The Family Man” as “something of a love letter to New York.” The author sees the coziness of life in a Manhattan neighborhood where there are often only one or two degrees of separation between people rather than John Guare’s famous six degrees.
Without ever seeming Polyanna-ish, Lipman presents the basic decency that is to be found in most people if you treat them kindly — even the loud and intrusive Denise.
Like some latter day Preston Sturges, Lipman takes a wildly disparate group of people and builds a delicious screwball comedy around them without ever going off the deep end into the silliness that mars most contemporary Hollywood attempts to explore this genre.
“The Family Man” reinforces my belief that Lipman is one of the sanest and smartest literary optimists to come along since the late great Laurie Colwin.