In this beguiling novel, Elinor Lipman charts her heroine's fixation with a small bastion of genteel anti-Semitism, a fixation that will have wildly unexpected consequences on her romantic life. As Natalie tries to enter the world that has excluded her—and succeeds through the sheerest of accidents—The Inn at Lake Devine becomes a delightful and provocative romantic comedy full of sparkling social mischief.
About the Author
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 and a 2007 lifetime achievement award from NELINET (New England Library and Information Network), “created to recognize the contributions of an individual associated with New England who has significantly advanced the arts and letters.”
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
It was not complicated, and, as my mother pointed out, not even personal: They had a hotel; they didn't want Jews; we were Jews.
We were nothing to them, a name on an envelope, when it began in 1962 as a response to a blind inquiry my mother had sent out in multiples. We'd been to Cape Cod and Cape Ann, to Old Orchard, Salisbury, and Hampton beaches, to Winnipesaukee and the Finger Lakes. That year she wrote to Vermont, which someone had told her was heaven. She found a lake on the map that was neither too big nor too small, and not too far north. The Vermont Chamber of Commerce listed some twenty accommodations on Lake Devine. She sent the same letter to a dozen cottage colonies and inns inquiring about rates and availability. The others answered with printed rate cards and cordial notes. But one reply was different, typed on textured white stationery below a green pointillist etching of a lakeside hotel. Croquet on the lawn, the Vermont vacation guide had said; rowboats, sundown concerts on Saturday nights; a lifeguard, a dock, a raft, a slide. The Inn's letter said, "Dear Mrs. Marx: Thank you for your inquiry. Our two-bedroom cabins rent at the weekly rate of sixty-five (U.S.) dollars. We do have a few openings during the period you requested. The Inn at Lake Devine is a family-owned resort, which has been in continuous operation since 1922. Our guests who feel most comfortable here, and return year after year, are Gentiles. Very truly yours, (Mrs.) Ingrid Berry, Reservations Manager."
I hadn't known up to that moment that I had a surname that was recognizably Jewish, or that people named Marx would be unwelcome somewhere in the United States because of it. I asked if these were Nazis. My mother sighed. I had been wed to the subject since reading, without her permission, The Diary of a Young Girl--specifically obsessed by where we, who had no attic, could hide that would be soundproof, and who among our Gentile acquaintances would bring us food under penalty of death.
My mother explained: There were people, unfortunately--for reasons it was hard to explain or understand--who weren't Nazis but didn't like Jews. Not that she wanted me to worry, because this was America, not Germany, not Amsterdam. We were safe here, remember? The letter was ignorant, and very bad manners. Someone should give this Mrs. Berry a piece of their mind.
I said, "Can we go?"
"You don't go where you're not wanted," my mother said. "Anyone who could write such a letter doesn't deserve our business." She took it back and stuffed it in its envelope with no particular archival care. Two days later, I removed it from the dining-room sideboard to a safer place--my sweater drawer. It fascinated me, the letter's marriage of good manners and anti-Semitism. Why bother to answer Jews at all if you don't want them at your hotel?
I tried to picture this Ingrid Berry who had signed neatly in blue ballpoint--the nerve of her insincere "Very truly yours." Was she old? Young? Married? Was Ingrid a German name? Did she get pleasure from insulting the people she banned from her hotel? And why didn't my parents respond to this slap in the face? "If you paid us a million dollars, we wouldn't come to your stupid hotel," I thought we should say. "If you had a baseball team, would you tell Sandy Koufax he couldn't pitch for you? Would you let Danny Kaye rent a room? Tony Curtis? Albert Einstein? Milton Berle? Jesus Christ?"
My mother didn't show the letter to my father, because she knew that he, like me, would want to jump in the truck and fix the problem. And so I produced it for him with the same flourish my mother had staged for me. "Good God!" he said, struggling with one hand to put on his reading glasses. I asked him if people who didn't rent rooms to Jews knew about the concentration camps.
"Everybody knows by now, honey."
I asked if he thought they had seen The Diary of Anne Frank.
"Probably not," he said. Then, "You know what I think we should do? Let's write back and tell her we want one of her stupid cabins."
I said, "I don't think they have cabins. It looks like a hotel."
He embroidered a little drama--not too seriously, but enough to get my mother's goat: We'd go as the Gentiles! Ed and Audrey Gentile. He'd known a man named Gentile in the navy from somewhere like Delaware or Pennsylvania. It was a real name. People truly had that for a name.
My mother said, "You'll have to drag me there."
"You don't want to see what a place like this is like?"
"And lie for the whole time we're there?"
"Church," said my mother. "You can bet the whole place empties out to go to church on Sundays."
"The Gentile family doesn't go to church when they're on vacation," my father said. "We go regularly on the other fifty weeks, but we pray in the cabin when we're on vacation."
"People will know," she said.
He thought they wouldn't. He was tall, taller than most Christians I knew, while my mother was a redhead no bigger than Gidget. And his two daughters looked like any two little American girls. "Except," my father said, smiling broadly, "nicer and smarter."
"And how would you make your point? Announce as you leave that we were the Eddie Marx family? Jews?"
"We wouldn't even have to tell them," said my father. "We could come and go and just know we fooled them."
Of course we didn't go. My mother found a place to rent on the opposite shore of Lake Devine--not a resort, but a heated cottage on a dirt road of private camps, listed with the Chamber of Commerce. We went there for two summers and found it, if not heaven, then very nice. The air smelled like bayberry. Indian paintbrush, a wildflower we didn't have at home, dotted every field. We swam and fished from a rowboat without an anchor, caught only ugly black-horned pouts we couldn't eat, and took a day trip to Fort Ticonderoga. The best miniature-golf course I'd ever played was a five-minute car ride away. The local dairy, which offered not only milk but cheddar cheese, made home deliveries even to the summer population.
My older sister and I often rowed past the Inn at Lake Devine, and studied it as best we could from offshore. It had a very green lawn, broad and sloping to the water, a white flagpole, and a chalky string of buoys marking off its swimming area. Closer to us, a raft covered with teenagers floated on shiny black oil drums. My sister and I had only each other for company, and a dock with no wading area, but here there were kids our age from what had to be a dozen families, swimming and diving as well as if they were on teams.
The following winter, having studied it and envied its postcard perfection, I put a long-thought-out plan into effect as a thirteenth-birthday present to myself. With a deerskin purse full of coins, I went to a pay phone. I called the Inn at Lake Devine and asked for Mrs. Berry. Amazingly, the party said, "This is she."
I read from my notes: "I was wondering if you had a cottage available for the entire month of July?"
"With whom am I speaking?" she asked.
"Miss Edgerly," I said, having elected the name of a Massachusetts man recently tried for murdering his wife in a particularly hideous fashion.
Mrs. Berry asked the caller's age, and I said fifteen; yes, I knew I was young to be making inquiries about accommodations, but my mother was recently deceased and my father was spending long hours in court.
She said, "We do have two lovely cottages with sleeping porches."
"Are they really, really nice?" I asked.
"They're in great demand," she said. "Electric stove, baseboard heat, stall shower, picnic table--"
"Is it private? Because my father's kind of famous. He really needs an escape."
"We're quiet and peaceful here," said the Berry woman. "It's a perfect hideaway vacation."
"Can you save it for us?"
"Do you want to inquire about our rates first?"
I told her that my father, Mr. Edgerly, had instructed me to get the best accommodations available no matter what the cost.
"We require a deposit," said Mrs. Berry. "Do you have a pencil?"
I took my time, pretending to record every syllable. "My father will send you a cashier's check first thing tomorrow," I said, adopting the disbursement method repeated daily on The Millionaire.
"You are a very smart young lady," said Mrs. Berry.
The next morning on my way to school, I anonymously mailed Mrs. Berry an old Globe clipping, its three-column headline blaring, Edgerly trial enters 6th week; jury sees "gruesome" photos, to make the point vividly to Mrs. Berry that her system "rooms open to any Gentile who dials her number" was unfair. I enclosed another clipping from my archives (Liz and Eddie/say I do's/before Rabbi) "this one from Photoplay" which spoke respectfully, even warmly, about Liz Taylor's conversion. The wedding shot showed them under a chupa, the new Mrs. Fisher in a flowered headband and Eddie in a somber dark suit and white satin yarmulke. Honored guests included their best friends, famous and beautiful Hollywood Jews.
In 1964, I would send Mrs. Berry a copy of the new Civil Rights Act. I wrote, "U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C.," in the upper-left-hand corner of the envelope, and typed a letter that said, "Dear Hotel Owners, It isn't only Colored people who are helped by this law. Jewish people and others you have excluded in the recent past must now be welcome at your accommodations. It is the Law of the Land."
Who knew if I'd ever exchange another letter with a documented anti-Semite? Just in case no one ever insulted me again--in this land of religious freedom and ironclad civil rights--I employed the big gun I was saving for future transgressors: "P.S.,-- I typed and underlined: "In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart."
What People are Saying About This
I loved this book. . .Jane Austen must be smiling down on Elinor Lipman. -- Author of I Know This Much Is True
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your reading of Elinor Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine. We hope that they will suggest a variety of ways to talk about this delicious new romantic comedy by the author of Isabel's Bed.
1. What fascinates Natalie most about the offensive note from Mrs. Berry is its "marriage of good manners and anti-Semitism" [p. 4]. Does Natalie show, later in the novel, what truly having "good manners" might mean?
2. What does Natalie mean when she mentions the "Gentile ambitions" [p. 65] that led her into a friendship with Robin Fife?
3. Although Eddie and Audrey Marx are both Jewish, they were originally drawn together because of their differences. For the spritelike Audrey, "there was something . . . about Eddie's jumbo presence, something like a bodyguard's or a football player's, that was normally off limits to a Jewish girl" [p. 19]. They were forced to marry when Audrey became pregnant at nineteen. Given the circumstances of their own history together, are Natalie's parents hypocritical in trying to stop Natalie from seeing Kris Berry?
4. Natalie says that her sister, Pamela, in marrying a Catholic (in a Catholic mass, no less), "used up our family's mixed-marriage chit, even our liberal-dating chit. It was up to me to bring home the perfect Jewish son-in-law" [p. 144]. Are Jewish parents more insistent than others about keeping their children from marrying outside their faith? If so, why?
5. The Inn at Lake Devine might be called a "revenge comedy." At the end the Berrys lose the Inn, and both of their sons take up with Jewish women. Is this a fitting comic closure for Ingrid Berry? What about the feckless but kind Mr. Berry, who loses his business because of carelessness in mushroom hunting? Should he have been more active in preventing his wife's exclusion of Jews from the hotel?
6. What are the social and class markers that Lipman uses to create a sense of realism at the Halseeyon and at the Inn at Lake Devine? How well do Kris and Nelson Berry respond to their weekend immersion in Jewish culture when they visit the Halseeyon with Natalie?
7. What role does food play in this novel? How do the significance and style of dining differ among social groups at Lake Devine and at the Halseeyon? Does food have more meaning for the Jews in the Catskills than it does for the WASPs in New England? What does the desire to be a chef reveal about Natalie's character?
8. At camp, Natalie first befriends Robin Fife in the hope of being invited by her family to the Inn at Lake Devine, but she is bored by the dull-witted Robin who, she notes, "couldn't take, make, or get a joke of any kind" [p. 41]. Her relationship with Robin at fourteen could be seen as mere opportunism; how does this change when they meet again ten years later?
9. Why do you suppose Elinor Lipman has chosen to leave out any details of Natalie's college years, including her experience of dating and sex?
10. The novel of the Jewish person coming of age in modern America—the most famous examples are Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint and Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz—is usually told from a young man's perspective. How does the shift to a female narrator in The Inn at Lake Devine challenge and transform this tradition?
11. Do some of the characters come across as more true to life than others? Which of the three families—Marx, Fife, or Berry—seems most realistically depicted? Does the role of surprise in the novel feel realistic? Does the unexpected always work? Does it add or detract from your enjoyment of the story?
12. This novel is based upon the reality of intermarriage and assimilation in American life, issues that are especially painful among the more observant Jewish communities. Lipman expertly draws the difference between the habits of Natalie's Reform family and those of her Orthodox friend Linette Feldman. Is it easier to feel good about the pairing of Natalie and Kris than that of Linette and Nelson? Do you feel that love rightly triumphs over religion in this novel?
13. One reviewer of this novel wrote, "Prejudice, in all its many disguises, is an unusually worthy but often ponderous subject; its very weightiness . . . often threatens to sink otherwise well-written and well-meaning tales."1 What aspects of Lipman's style allow her to avoid this pitfall?
14. What do you find most satisfying about the way that Lipman brings her plot to closure?
15. In a recent interview Elinor Lipman said, "I like novels that are funny, quirky, intelligent, and humane."2 How well, for you, does The Inn at Lake Devine fit this description?
1 Liesel Litzenburger, "No Room at the Inn." Chicago Tribune, 14 June 1998.
2 Online, Amazon.com, February 1999.