Book Bag: “On Turpentine Lane” by Elinor Lipman; “Walking to Listen” by Andrew Forsthoefel

Thursday, March 16, 2017

by Steve Pfarrer


By Elinor Lipman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Turpentine Lane might not have the most appealing name, but Faith Frankel finds the little bungalow for sale there full of charm: two bedrooms, a claw-foot tub in the bathroom, and a carved pineapple newel post on the staircase. Best of all is the bargain-basement price, including the seller’s promise to pay for all needed repairs.

But Faith, the narrator of Elinor Lipman’s new novel, “On Turpentine Lane,” isn’t quite prepared for the creepy history she discovers about her new home — such as the photographs she finds in the attic, of twin babies that both appeared to have died in the house a week after their birth. 

But “On Turpentine Lane” is not about Lipman trying her hand at horror. It’s a breezy romantic comedy that, like the best of the author’s work, is propelled by its snappy dialogue and a full cast of interesting characters, from the charming to the mysterious to the clownish.

Thirty-two-year-old Faith has returned from a cramped apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y. to her hometown of Everton, Mass. to take a job at the private high school she attended; she writes institutional thank-you notes to donors to her alma mater.

Everton bears a passing resemblance to Northampton, where Lipman lived for many years before moving to New York City. For starters, there’s Faith’s fiancé, Stuart, a fortyish hippie who’s walking across the country to “find himself”; he wears a two-sided sign reading “IN SEARCH OF STORIES”/“FREE HUGS” in Spanish and English.

To Faith’s displeasure, Stuart also poses for photos with many women he meets along the way and posts the pictures to Facebook and Instagram; he often texts her to tell her he’s too busy, or too tired, to take her phone calls.

At work, Faith must contend with a doltish boss, Reggie, who owes his position to his days as a hotshot quarterback for the private school. Faith is furious when Reggie offers her no support after she’s falsely accused by school officials of trying to appropriate donations for her personal use.

Meantime, Faith’s well-meaning but busybody mother, who lives nearby, wants to see her daughter married but has scant tolerance for Stuart (“Where’s Peter Pan this week? Meeting some nice potheads he’ll never see again?”).

More disharmony: Faith and her brother, Joel, are both appalled by their father, who’s taken up painting in his retirement and moves in with a woman who brokers his work. She also happens to be 25 years younger than him. “Why can’t you just seduce models in your studio like other artists do?” Joel says to him.

Amid all this turmoil — including the possibility 10 Turpentine Lane might have been a murder site in the past — Faith’s one lifeline is her co-worker, Nick, a funny, attractive guy who becomes her housemate when his own live-in girlfriend throws him out. Will the two simply remain friends, or is Nick an obvious replacement for the hapless Stuart?

If the answer to that question might seem preordained, it doesn’t get in the way of enjoying “On Turpentine Lane.” A blurb from People magazine sums up the novel’s appeal in a nutshell: “Lipman is a diva of dialogue. Her repartee flashes like Zorro’s sword.” 

Elinor Lipman will read from her new novel Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley.



By Andrew Forsthoefel



When Andrew Forsthoefel graduated from Middlebury College in 2011, he wasn’t sure what his next step should be — so he took many, many steps, walking across the country with a backpack and a goal of hearing people’s stories along the way.

Forsthoefel, who these days makes his home in Northampton, has recounted his journey — about 4,000 miles over 11 months — in “Walking to Listen,” a travelogue and observational story in the tradition of similar works like “Blue Highways” and “Travels with Charley.” 

The author relied on the generosity of strangers to give him occasional shelter and assistance and to fight his own demons of loneliness and doubt: “I was never as uncomfortable as when I knocked on a stranger’s door, but at the same time, I never felt so alive, electrified by the unknown world on the other side.”

Along the way he made it a point to listen to people’s stories, like the self-proclaimed rednecks in a small Texas town who took him in one night; he watches as they butcher a wild hog they’d shot. A lifelong liberal, Forsthoefel finds himself opening to different cultural and political viewpoints on the road.

His book, Publisher’s Weekly writes, “becomes a meditation on vulnerability, trust, and the tragedy of suburban and rural alienation … [his] conversation with America is … ultimately transformative and wise.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Andrew Forsthoefel will lead a workshop on walking and listening Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center in Westfield, 53 Mill Street, (413) 562-3627. More information is available at genesisspiritualcenter.org.