All hell breaks loose when a new dorm mother arrives at a second-rate New England girl’s college in Lipman’s eighth romantic comedy (The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, 2003, etc).
In 1977, 16-year-old narrator Frederica Hatch lives on the campus of Dewing College with her mother and father, David and Aviva, who serve as houseparents as well as professors of psychology and sociology. Frederica’s only friend on campus, sort of, is Marietta Woodbury, daughter of Dewing’s new president; the girls have formed an uneasy relationship encouraged by Mrs. Woodbury, who gives Frederica rides to the public high school they both attend. David and Aviva are stereotypical academics: dowdy, painstakingly rational, and committed to liberal causes, particularly those related to employee-management relations on campus. So their daughter is shocked to discover that David was previously married to his distant cousin, Laura Lee French, whom he left for Aviva, his soulmate. Thanks to Frederica’s conveniently (if unconvincingly) interfering grandmother, Laura Lee takes a job at Dewing as a dorm mother. Frederica, already chafing at being raised as a kind of college mascot, is initially enchanted by the new arrival’s flamboyant style, but Laura Lee is clearly a troublemaker, if not a sociopath. She enjoys making David and especially Aviva uncomfortable. After Frederica introduces her to the college president (in the cafeteria, where the Hatches eat all their meals), Laura Lee and Dr. Woodbury carry on a brazenly open affair, which so humiliates his wife that she attempts suicide by carbon-monoxide poisoning. She survives, but with brain damage—a decidedly unfunny situation for a supposedly comic novel. Lipman ties up the rest of the plot in typical sprightly fashion: David becomes college president; Laura Lee has a baby who grows up to be a delight; Frederica returns to work at Dewing as an adult. It’s as though Mrs. Woodbury’s ruined life is just a minor contrivance.
Not one of this popular author’s best.