With her trademark humor and warmth, the beloved author of The Ladies' Man and The Inn at Lake Devine explores going home again; about finding light in the dark corners of one's inhospitable past; about love, golf, and DNA.
Everyone in King George, New Hampshire, loved Margaret Batten, part-time amateur actress, full-time wallflower, and single mother to a now-distant daughter, Sunny. But accidents happen. The death of Margaret, side by side with her putative fiancé, brings Sunny back to the scene of the unhappy adolescence she thought she’d left behind. Reentry is to be dreaded; there’s no hiding in a town with one diner, one doctor, one stop sign, one motel. Yet allies surface; even high school tormentors have grown up in unforeseen and gratifying ways. Just possibly, Sunny begins to think, she wasn’t as beleaguered as she felt she was. And maybe her mother’s life was richer than anyone suspected. Add to the mix a chief of police whose interest in Sunny exceeds his civic duty, and you have the makings of an irresistibly beguiling tale from an author who writes with all the wit and wry authority of a latter-day Jane Austen.
About the Author
Elinor Lipman is the author of seven books: the novels The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, The Dearly Departed, The Ladies' Man, The Inn at Lake Devine, Isabel's Bed, The Way Men Act, Then She Found Me, and a collection of stories, Into Love and Out Again. She has been called "the diva of dialogue" (People) and "the last urbane romantic" (Chicago Tribune). Book Magazine said of The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, "Like Jane Austen, the past master of the genre, Lipman isn't only out for laughs. She serves up social satire, too, that's all the more trenchant for being deftly drawn."
Her essays have appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Gourmet, Chicago Tribune, and The New York Times’ Writers on Writing series. She received the New England Booksellers' 2001 fiction award for a body of work.
Hometown:Northampton, Massachusetts, and New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 16, 1950
Place of Birth:Lowell, Massachusetts
Education:A.B., Simmons College, 1972; Honorary Doctor of Letters, Simmons College, 2000
Read an Excerpt
Come Back to King George
Sunny met Fletcher for the first time at their parents’ funeral, a huge graveside affair where bagpipes wailed and strangers wept. It was a humid, mosquito-plagued June day, and the grass was spongy from a midnight thunderstorm. They had stayed on the fringes of the crowd until both were rounded up and bossed into the prime mourners’ seats by the funeral director. Sunny wore white—picture hat, dress, wet shoes—and an expression that layered anger over grief: Who is he? How dare he? Are any of these gawkers friends?
Unspoken but universally noticed was the physical attribute she and Fletcher shared—a halo of prematurely gray hair of a beautiful shade and an identical satiny, flyaway texture. No DNA test result, no hints in wills, could be more eloquent than this: the silver corona of signature hair above their thirty-one-year-old, identically furrowed brows.
The King George Bulletin had reported every possible angle, almost gleefully. Margaret Batten, local actress, and friend found unconscious, said the first banner headline. Bulletin paper carrier calls 911, boasted the kicker. An arty photo—sunrise in King George—of scrawny, helmeted Tyler Lopez on his bike, a folded newspaper frozen in flight, appeared on page 1. “I knew something was wrong when I saw them laying on the floor—the woman and a man,” he told the reporter. “The door was open. I thought they might still be alive, so I used the phone.” Inescapable in the coverage was the suggestion of a double suicide or foul play. Yellow police tape surrounded the small house. Even after tests revealed carbon monoxide in their blood and a crack in the furnace’s heat exchanger, Bulletin reporters carried on, invigorated by a double, coed death on their beat.
A reader named Vickileigh Vaughn wrote a letter to the editor. She wanted to clarify something on the record so all of King George would know: Friend in the headline was inaccurate and possibly libelous. Miles Finn and Margaret Batten were engaged to be married. Friends, yes, but so much more than that. An outdoor wedding had been discussed. If the odorless and invisible killer hadn’t overcome them, Miles would have left, as was his custom, before midnight, after the Channel 9 news.
Sunny was notified by a message on her answering machine. “Sunny? It’s Fletcher Finn, Miles’s son. Could you pick up if you’re there?” Labored breathing filled the pause. “I guess not. Okay. Listen, I don’t know when I can get to a phone again, so I’ll have to give you the news, which is somewhat disturbing.” Another pause, too long for the machine, which clicked off. He called back. “Hi, it’s Fletcher Finn again. Here’s what I was going to say. I’ll make it quick: I got a call from the police in Saint George, New Hampshire—no, sorry, King George. They found our parents unconscious. Nobody knows anything. I’ve got the name of the hospital and the other stuff the cop said. What’s your fax number? Call me. I’ll be up late.”
Sunny phoned the King George police. The crime scene, she was told by a solicitous male voice, was roped off until the lab work came back. Sunny pictured the peeling gray bungalow secured with yellow tape, its sagging porch and overgrown lilacs cinched in the package.
“Are they going to die?” she asked.
“Sunny?” said the officer. “It’s Joe Loach. From Mattatuck Avenue? We were in study hall together junior and senior—”
“I got a message from a Fletcher Finn, who said his father and my mother were found unconscious, but that’s all I know. He didn’t even say what hospital.”
Loach coughed. “Sunny? They weren’t taken to a hospital. It was too late for that.”
“No,” Sunny moaned. “No. Please.”
“It was the damn carbon monoxide. It builds up over time, and then it’s too late. I’m so sorry. I hate to do this over the phone . . .”
When she couldn’t answer, he said, “I saw your mother in Driving Miss Daisy at the VFW, and she was really something.”
Sunny pictured her mother’s grande-dame bow and the magisterial sweep of the arm that invited her leading man to join her in the spotlight. It had taken practice, with Sunny coaching, because Margaret’s inclination was to blush and look amazed.
“You’re where now? Connecticut?”
She said she was.
“Okay. One step at a time. Nothing says you can’t make arrangements by telephone. Maybe your mother put her preferences in writing—people do that, something like, ‘Instructions. To be opened in the event of my death.’ I could walk anything over to the funeral parlor for you. In fact, remember Dickie Saint-Onge from our class? He took over the business. He’s used to handling things long-distance.”
“I’m coming up,” said Sunny.
“She and her fiancé didn’t suffer,” said Joey Loach. “That much I can promise you.”
“Fiancé?” she repeated. “How do you know that?”
“That seems to be everyone’s understanding. Her cleaning lady wrote a letter to the editor to set the record straight. Plus, there was a ring on the appropriate finger.”
Sunny cried softly, her hand over the receiver.
“Can I do anything?” he asked. “Can I call anyone?”
“I’d better get off,” she said. “There must be some phone calls I should make. I’m sure that’s what I’m supposed to do next.”
“Just so you know, the house is okay now. They found the leak and fixed it, the town did, first thing. You don’t have to be afraid of sleeping there. I’ll make sure that everything is shipshape.”
“I think my friend Regina used to baby-sit for your sister,” she said. “Marilyn?”
“Marilee,” said Joey. “She’s still here. We’re all still here. So’s Regina. You okay?”
“I meant to say thank you,” said Sunny, “but that’s what came out instead.”
“You’re welcome,” said Joey Loach.
Fletcher sounded more annoyed than mournful when he reached Sunny the next morning. “Under the circumstances,” he said, “I would have thought you’d have returned my call.”
“You didn’t leave your number,” said Sunny.
“I’m sure you can appreciate that I wasn’t thinking about secretarial niceties last night,” he snapped.
“Such as ‘I’m so sorry about your mother’?”
“I didn’t know her,” he said. “And at the time of my call I believed she was still alive.”
Sunny quietly slipped the receiver into its cradle. It rang seconds later.
Reading Group Guide
“Pitch perfectly hilarious. . . . Almost nobody writes serious entertainment with more panache.” —Chicago Tribune
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group’s reading of Elinor Lipman’s highly enjoyable novel The Dearly Departed.
1. What physical characteristics or personality traits did Sunny inherit from her mother and father, who was presumably Miles Finn?
2. Regarding Fletcher and Sunny, Emily Ann observes, “Appearances aside, you two seem like complete opposites” [p. 190]. Do Sunny and Fletcher share any similarities other than their physical resemblance? How does each feel about discovering a new sibling? Does it mean more to Fletcher or Sunny? Why?
3. How does Lipman use physical surroundings to create a presence for Margaret and Miles despite their being deceased before the novel begins? [See, for example, the description of Miles’s cabin in Chapter 14 and the contents of Margaret’s house in Chapter 15.]
4. Sunny asks Joey: “Would a truly grief-stricken daughter go directly from the cemetery to the golf course? Or, between the wake and the funeral, give herself a pedicure” [p. 228]? Given the treatment of death and grief in the novel, how might these questions to be answered? Does Sunny handle her grief in an appropriate manner? A realistic manner?
5. A reviewer in The Atlantic Monthly noted, “Sunny learns a universal truth: Things get better after high school.” Do the memories of her high school harassment loom larger in Sunny’s mind than the facts support?
6. Is the grudge that Sunny holds against the high school boys’ golf team justified, or is Randy Pope fair in asserting that “some ladies roll with the punches. Some even laugh instead of carrying a grudge” [p. 137]?
7. In the small town of King George, everyone knows everyone else. This is highlighted best by Dr. Ouimet’s infuriating yet comical dilemma as he searches for someone in whom he can confide his feelings for Margaret: “Who in this town, be they counselor or clergy, wasn’t a patient?” [p. 215] How does Lipman paint life in King George and small town life in general?
8. About the golf course that was her backyard, Sunny says, “I know all the loopholes. All the best times to sneak onto the King George Links, virtually invisible” [p. 96]. And Sunny also comments about Margaret to Fletcher, “She was very conventional, and very worried about what other people thought. Above all else, she wanted to fit in” [p. 163]. As Sunny discovers, she was, and is, hardly invisible to the residents of King George. Moreover, her mother was somewhat less than conventional. In what other ways does The Dearly Departed explore this theme of appearance versus reality?
9. Joey’s mother hovers over and clearly adores her son. What does their relationship say about Joey, and how do his mother’s regular appearances advance the plot?
10. Despite their completely different upbringing, do Emily Ann and Sunny have anything in common? What significance do people’s socioeconomic backgrounds have in King George?
11. Who is the central character of The Dearly Departed? Do the actions of any one character dominate the plot? Does any one character’s viewpoint pervade the narrative?
12. Compare the characters who actively engage in life, such as Margaret, Randy Pope, Emil Ouimet, to those who choose to remain more passive, such as Regina Pope, Emily Grandjean, and Billy and Christine Ouimet. Into which category might Sunny, Fletcher, or Joey be placed? In The Dearly Departed, do people actually change, or is it just perceptions that change?
13. What role does dialogue play in The Dearly Departed? How do conversations reveal feelings and promote both character and plot development? What makes the conversations in the novel realistic?
14. Lipman has been called “a queen of verbal economy” (Boston Magazine). An example might be when we are told that Randy Pope, Sunny’s former archenemy, tracked down Margaret’s personal effects “in person, and found it misfiled in Concord” [p. 252]. Can you think of other examples of the author’s narrative shorthand?
15. Reviewer Maggie Galehouse writes, “If the cast of NBC’s Friends beamed into Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the result might well be Elinor Lipman’s latest novel. Set in King George, N.H. (a town that rivals Grover’s Corners in size and sensibility), The Dearly Departed has the charm and economy of Wilder’s play, along with the quick-witted, intently quirky characters of a successful sitcom” (The New York Times Book Review, July 15, 2001). Is the comparison between The Dearly Departed and a television sitcom apropos? If you are familiar with the Thornton Wilder play Our Town, how is it similar to The Dearly Departed?
16. To what genre of literature does The Dearly Departed belong? Is there a theatrical or dramatic style to the novel?
17. Neal Wyatt remarks, “It is a rare treat to read a book that is at once utterly modern but also evokes the world of Wooster and Jeeves” (Booklist, May 15, 2001). What elements of The Dearly Departed bring about this dichotomy of modernism and quaintness in prose, plot, descriptions, and characters?
18. Is the ending of The Dearly Departed a happy one? Is it satisfying or anticlimactic? Why might Lipman have chosen to end the novel where she does and leave certain questions unresolved? For example, what happens to Billy? Were Miles and Margaret actually engaged or not? Will Fletcher become romantically involved with Emily Ann? Based upon the ending, would you characterize Lipman as an optimist? A romantic?