How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life
by Mameve Medwed
(Avon, $13.95, PG) ISBN 0-06-083120-2
***
The splendidly-named Mameve Medwed is an acolyte of Elinor Lipman, and the two authors share a similar witty, upscale intellectual style, producing romantic comedies for the New Yorker set.  I’ve read all of Lipman’s works (and can highly recommend several of them), but this is my first exposure to Ms. Medwed.  Although her voice is distinctive and her depiction of the Cambridge intelligentsia is deadly accurate, her heroine leaves a lot to be desired.   

Abby Randolph lives a quiet spinsterish life, much to the disappointment of her stern father, a retired Harvard humanities professor.  She operates the barely profitable “A & C Eclectibles” booth at an antiques mall, trying to ignore the fact that her former lover and partner Clyde (the “C” of A&C) recently ran off with a customer.  Then Gus, the kindly vendor next door, surprises her by suggesting that the chamber pot on display that she calls “nothing special” might actually be worth a trip to the Antiques Roadshow.   

More to humor Gus than anything else, Abby waits in line with thousands of hopeful antique owners at the Roadshow, only to find that the pot she kept primarily for its sentimental value once belonged to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  Just a few short weeks after Abby’s shocked countenance appears on television, she is contacted by a lawyer representing Lavinia Potter-Templeton, who claims that the chamber pot and the anticipated generous proceeds from its sale rightfully belong to her.  Lavinia and Abby were next door neighbors as children, and their mothers “found themselves” in their 50s when they left their husbands and ran off together for several glorious years before dying in an earthquake while touring India.  Although Lavinia showed no interest whatsoever in the chamber pot when the women first split their mothers’ possessions, she now engages in some major revisionist history in order to access this potential goldmine.   

Even with the help of a powerhouse attorney who used to be her college roommate, Abby is at the mercy of the selfish, amoral and manipulative Lavinia.  Even worse, dealing with Lavinia forces Abby to remember her doomed love affair with Lavinia’s brother Ned.  But Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who defied her family to find true love with Robert Browning, may have a few lessons to teach Abby, with surprising results for her and the object in question.   

The novel is well-written, featuring numerous humorous and lively incidents, starting with Abby’s whirlwind Antiques Roadshow experience and culminating with a romantic yet cataclysmic love scene.  The author’s self-professed fondness for antiques and “stuff” in general is obvious and easy to appreciate.  As Abby says, “Maybe I went into the antiques business because of the power of objects, their ability to connote so many things, the inanimate made animate by memory, feeling, history.  Or maybe I chose my profession simply because of the way a piece of porcelain, a plaster cast, a well-used, well-cherished tool can act as a touchstone for love.”  Antiquers and pack rats everywhere can relate.   

Medwed also deftly captures the insular, privileged but pressured world inhabited by children of academics.  Having spent my college years near Boston, I enjoyed the numerous Cambridge and other New England references.  I just wish I had liked Abby more.  Like a Victorian heroine, she is largely passive throughout most of the novel, with an annoying habit of taking to her bed and moping whenever she faces a new crisis.  She lets herself be pushed around by the odious Lavinia and deceived by an obvious seducer.  The pivotal deposition scene regarding the disputed ownership of the chamber pot is resolved not by Abby’s determination or wit, but by waterworks.  A flashback to her relationship with Ned shows her running away when hurt, instead of confronting him or fighting for their relationship.  Even the romantic happy ending is largely out of her control.  Granted, her self-esteem has taken a beating since childhood due to her father’s disapproval of her lack of academic success, but the realization of her own self-worth comes too slowly to affect her actions.  

I enjoyed the author’s style enough to consider hunting down her three previous novels, but I hope the heroines of those works show more of a spine.  How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life is the type of book that garners rave reviews from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe because it doesn’t look like a romance novel or Chick Lit, but I’ve read numerous books in both genres that have been much more satisfying.   

--Susan Scribner


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