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Originally published Sunday, May 12, 2013 at 6:09 AM

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An Elinor Lipman feast: new novel, new essay collection

Fans of Elinor Lipman rejoice: The witty prose stylist has published two new books simultaneously, the essay collection “I Can’t Complain” and the novel “The View from Penthouse B.”

Special to The Seattle Times

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“I Can’t Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays” by Elinor Lipman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 252 pp., $25

“The View from Penthouse B”

by Elinor Lipman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 252 pp., $25

“What?” you may be thinking. “Elinor Lipman has published two books at once?”

Yes, much to the delight of readers who can never get enough of this wryly witty, insightful prose stylist, the author of nine previous novels of the sort that you want to read again.

One new book (“I Can’t Complain”) is a collection of endearingly personal essays on various subjects; the other is a novel that draws its autobiographical flavor from the last of those essays. Called “A Fine Nomance,” that essay essentially establishes the premise of its partner novel, “The View from Penthouse B,” about the author’s trials in getting her widowed heroine, Gwen-Laura Schmidt, out into the world of personal ads and dates.

As we know from “A Fine Nomance,” the author herself is a widow, navigating the same waters that Gwen-Laura is treading in her ventures back into the process of “meeting someone.”

So if you’re planning to read both books — and Lipman fans surely will want to — it’s best to start with the essays. Not only do they introduce the novel; they also trace the trajectory of Lipman’s own life. They are drawn from her earlier writings about her youth, falling in love, becoming a wife and mother, emerging as a successful novelist, dealing with her husband’s fatal illness and enduring unexpectedly early widowhood.

The essays are full of wit and charm, along with some trenchant observations. In a discussion of how she chooses names for characters, Lipman reveals that the sexual predator in “The Dearly Departed” has the same last name as “the critic who gave a dear friend an ugly review in The New York Times.”

Lipman’s husband, who had a more conservative taste in clothing (she says), would look at her more adventurous outfits with an expression she calls “evaluative,” one often seen “on the faces of judges at the Westminster Dog Show.”

Her book readings have always taken place with at least one “snoozer in the audience. He wakes up during the Q and A and asks a question you’ve just answered at length.”

The last essay, “A Fine Nomance,” steers us right into the novel (“The View from Penthouse B”). Winning and often wildly funny, the novel sends the widowed New Yorker Gwen-Laura to live with her divorced older sister Margot, who lost her money to Bernie Madoff and her husband to a humiliating scandal (a fertility gynecologist, he “assisted” patients personally toward parenthood, a practice that got him a trial and jail time).

They soon get another housemate, 29-year-old Anthony, a delightful gay man made jobless by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Margot and Anthony prod the meek Gwen-Laura into various online-dating scenarios, with outcomes ranging from boring to horrific. (Lipman’s account of a rude, snarling Type-A date who berates poor Gwen-Laura is downright appalling.)

What happens next is a series of wonderful metamorphoses, as everyone tries to think up new schemes for financial solvency and personal fulfillment.

The still-furious Margot discovers her ex-husband has just been released from minimum-security prison; Gwen investigates personal ads and arrives at a surprising outcome just when she has given up hope.

And Anthony is the facilitator for all of this, teaching the sisters how to download, upload and get out into the real world — and also how to pipe frosting onto red-velvet cupcakes.

This novel, in fact, disappears faster than a red-velvet cupcake, even when you try to read more slowly because the diminishing number of pages means you’re unfortunately getting closer to the acknowledgments.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical-music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to The Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).

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