Paperback: 304pp

Published: Lightning Books (September 2023)

ISBN: 9781785633829

Ms. Demeanor

Elinor Lipman

£9.99

‘A joyride with a potent dose of wry social commentary’

New York Times

SEMI-FINALIST: Thurber Prize

Jane Morgan is a valued member of her law firm – or was, until a prudish neighbour, binoculars poised, observes her having sex on the roof of her Manhattan apartment building. Police are summoned, and a judge sentences her to six months of home confinement.

With Jane now jobless and rootless, trapped at home, life looks bleak. Yes, her twin sister provides support and advice, but mostly of the unwelcome kind. So when a doorman lets slip that Jane isn’t the only resident of her building wearing an ankle monitor, she strikes up a friendship with fellow white-collar felon Perry Salisbury.

As she tries to adapt to her new circumstances, she discovers she hasn’t heard the end of that nosy neighbour – whose past isn’t as decorous as her snitching would suggest. Why are police knocking on Jane's door again? Might her house arrest have a silver lining? Can two wrongs make a right?

Extracts

Let’s say there were two people, a man and a woman, lounging on the rooftop terrace of an apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She is thirty-nine, a lawyer. He, on the neighboring chaise longue, is twenty-six, a new associate in the same firm who has this night confessed to a crush that was not brushed aside as workplace guidelines required.

We’ll call him Noah, and we’ll call her me. It’s barely our first date, after a less-than-professional conversation in a long checkout line at Trader Joe’s. We have a drink or two at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We return to my building, specifically for me to show off its newest and proudest amenity, our tiled, furnished and landscaped roof with its view of Central Park one way and Times Square blinking to the south.

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Extracts

Let’s say there were two people, a man and a woman, lounging on the rooftop terrace of an apartment building in midtown Manhattan. She is thirty-nine, a lawyer. He, on the neighboring chaise longue, is twenty-six, a new associate in the same firm who has this night confessed to a crush that was not brushed aside as workplace guidelines required.

We’ll call him Noah, and we’ll call her me. It’s barely our first date, after a less-than-professional conversation in a long checkout line at Trader Joe’s. We have a drink or two at a nearby Mexican restaurant. We return to my building, specifically for me to show off its newest and proudest amenity, our tiled, furnished and landscaped roof with its view of Central Park one way and Times Square blinking to the south.

It is a June night with ideal 75-ish degree breezes blowing. Above us was not just a full moon but a blood moon, huge and orange.

Man, woman, mojitos. One thing leads to another, just the way Miss Freitas warned in junior high sex ed. It is past the hour at which the building lights automatically go off.

Noah asks, after a long, companionable silence on our separate chaises, “Did you ever skinny dip?” It is, I assume, a purely academic question since there is no pool in my building. I say, “Once or twice.”  

He then asks, “Do other people use the roof this late?”

I tell him I don’t know. This is the latest I’ve ever been up here.

“No pressure,” he assures me, “but do you mind if I take my clothes off? The breeze is beautiful. It’ll be like moonbathing.”

I don’t object. Workplace ethics aside, who wouldn’t be a little curious, given what sounded like anatomical pride. And who would know?

I could hear the squeak of the chaise as he lifted his butt, presumably to peel off whatever, if any, underwear a 26-year-old wears.

I say, “If anyone at work ever found out…”

“I’m not stupid. No one ever will.” And then, “It feels great. It’s like the breezes are massaging me. If I fall asleep, wake me when you want me to leave.”

What could be more benign than that? No agenda, no pressure, no suggestion that I too might enjoy these tickling breezes on parts rarely exposed to the elements.

After a few more minutes, I volunteer, “Maybe just my dress.”

“Totally up to you.”

What makes my disrobing a bigger leap than I might otherwise have undertaken is that this halter dress is equipped with an interfacing that imparts built-in support. In other words, I am braless.

Why be a prude? The Eagle Scout’s eyes aren’t even open.

There I lie, my dress bunching around my waist, more suitable for a mammogram than moonbathing.  It takes some sashaying in place, but I work everything down and off – everything –proving I am just as much a cool and carefree exhibitionist as any movie-star-handsome paralegal, thirteen years my junior.

Now what? Sit back and mimic his atmospheric gusto?  

I hear, “Better not look,” followed by “Sorry!”

I do look. Even in the dark I can see his two hands trying to conceal a bobbing penis.

Not unflattered I say, “It’s not doing anyone any harm.” We are both silent until I ask, “Would you like me to touch it?”

Then we are, side by side on the narrow chaise, hip to hip. Did I not know fully that our kissing would make his condition more acute? I say, “Maybe we should go downstairs to my apartment.”

“Are you cold?”

I say no, hardly. I meant it would just be more comfortable. Just for…never mind. Don’t stop.

The exceedingly polite Noah asks with every advance, “Are you sure?”  

                     

Having broken my own loose rule about no sex until the fifth date; maybe second, third or fourth, depending, I intended to comply with the firm’s sexual harassment guidelines. Tomorrow, first thing, I’d disclose to H.R. in the strictest confidence that Noah and I were seeing each other. Yes, maybe delivered ex post facto, but disclosure nonetheless. Easy. No worries.

I was wrong, very. Because across the street, from a comparable elevation, a law-and-order prude of a Mother Superior couldn’t take her eyes off us.

She called 9-1-1, sounding frantic over a crime taking place on the floor directly opposite her-- in public! She was appalled, disgusted, shocked. She was shaking! Send someone!  

If, when the police arrived and asked, “What do you want us to do?” she could have said, “Just tell them never to do it again.”

But no. She wanted us arrested! She’d seen our private parts! And here, if the officers didn’t believe her, the video on her phone! Is this not indecent exposure? Is this not lewd and lascivious behavior?

The officers crossed the street, badged my overnight doorman, asked if he could identify any of these people from the video, now transferred to their phones.

Whatever Andres said—maybe "Hard to tell with them moving. I think it’s Miss Morgan in 6-J”--up they went to the roof, knocked on the door, announced “Police!”

As we scrambled for our clothes, I yelled, “Give us a sec! I’m fine! We’re on a date,” and when we were both covered and upright, “Okay, you can come in now.”

They did. A man and a woman, unsmiling, both short, both solid. Noah volunteered, “If you need me to leave so she can confirm that she’s safe and this is all consensual—”

Both officers, I thought, were looking more apologetic than constabular. “No,” said the male officer, “We’re following up on a 9-1-1 call about a crime in progress.”

I told them I was a lawyer. What crime?

“Indecent exposure…” then, quietly, “Exposing genitals to the public.”

“This is private property, a coop! I own shares in this building!”

He looked skyward. “Open air, exposed. The victim was able to videotape you. It’s as good as a public place.”

I said, “Victim! Isn’t being a peeping Tom a crime? I’ll countersue!”

“We’re obliged to follow up, Ma’am,” he said. “It’s about the victim’s mindset. To her, it was a shock.”

“She had palpitations,” said his partner.

“Where is she?” I asked, but it was obvious—surveilling us from the terrace directly across Seventh Avenue, with its show-off potted plants and trellises decorated for every stupid holiday.

I might as well have streaked down Fifth Avenue. In the wattage of a full moon we’d committed a lewd public act or two, considered by the traumatized killjoy across the street as gross indecency and “putting on a show.”

The summons brought us a day in court. Represented by a senior member of my firm, Noah got a fine. I, a litigator, represented myself, sure that any judge would find that two consenting adults having sex on private property had done no one any harm.

During my allocution, pre-sentencing, I couldn’t bring myself to apologize. I suggested that what happened on my terrace happened all over the city, all over the country, weather permitting, between consenting adults.

“Does that make it right?” the judge asked. “Her grandchildren could’ve been visiting.”  

For my gross indecency, my apparent lack of remorse and (unstated) promiscuity, for workplace sexual harassment, not even charged but implied; for the grainy photo published in the New York Post, identifying me with the suffix J.D., he made an example of me, an officer of the court. He imposed a fine of $2,000 and one hundred and eighty freaking days of home confinement. Three already-miserable weeks later I received a letter of censure from the Bar Association with a notice that my hard-earned, income-granting, pride-affirming license to practice law had been suspended.

quotes

Ms. Demeanor is a complete and utter delight. Of course it is. What Elinor Lipman novel isn’t?’

Richard Russo

‘I love the wit, lightness of touch, dry, wry humour and optimism of Elinor Lipman’s writing’

Marian Keyes

‘I never miss one of Elinor Lipman’s funny, delightful novels’

Judy Blume

‘Elinor Lipman is one of my favourite comic novelists: social satire, Jewish wit, pin-sharp on love, mistakes and age. Pure bliss’

Amanda Craig

‘I’ve just finished Ms. Demeanor and absolutely loved loved loved every moment of it. Hugely recommended!’

Angela Jackson

‘Who knew house arrest could be sexy and fun? Not me, at least not until I read Ms. Demeanor. Written with Elinor Lipman’s signature wit and charm, this breezy, engrossing novel tells the story of two people who make the most of their shared confinement’

Tom Perrotta

‘Best Lipman work yet! When a neighbour’s complaint about consensual al fresco sex turns into house arrest and a suspended legal licence, Jane’s recipe for survival involves cooking for another home-arrested tenant (could this be a match made in confinement?) while trying to figure out the whys and hows of her mysterious accuser. Filled with food, family, romance and intrigue, Lipman’s novel cooks up a bounty of delights as sparkling as prosecco and as deeply satisfying and delicious as a five-star meal’

Caroline Leavitt

‘Lipman, a master chef of literary romantic comedy, cooks up a deliciously entertaining story whose ingredients include wit, sass, sex, and social satire. Ms. Demeanor is Lipman’s fourteenth novel and one of her best’

Wally Lamb

‘Elinor Lipman, she of the lightest touch and quickest wit, has written a novel to delight even the weariest, wariest soul of our times. Art, food, real estate – New York City rises enthusiastically to embrace the reader. And the characters rise to embrace each other. Lockdowns morph into charming English villages, and love, as it must, wins out. An enchantment that I, for one, really needed’

Cathleen Schine

‘Flawless – has such a light hand while drawing the characters precisely. It’s wonderful. Her best to date’

Jane Hamilton

reviews

‘Charm and clever high jinks with a potent dose of wry social commentary. It’s not every day that a reader gets to root for an unrepentant middle-aged woman. Lipman makes this envelope-pushing feel like a joyride – but don’t be fooled by all the fun. Barriers are being broken. That a scandalous woman’s happy ending feels so inevitable turns out to be its own triumph – as much a clap back to sexism as a celebration of guiltless pleasure’

New York Times

‘Elinor Lipman is such a wonderfully witty writer that you can forgive the sometimes improbable plot turns. A sparklingly entertaining caper’

Jewish Chronicle

‘A knowing, genial story of how love sometimes emerges in the most unlikely circumstances. Lipman’s dialogue is crisp, smart and consistently funny. “Comedy is hard,” as someone once said. Here, Elinor Lipman makes it look effortless’

Book Reporter

‘Filled with humour, heart, and a delightful cast of characters…a charming yet modern exploration of love, self-discovery and the importance of staying true to oneself’

Times Leader

extras

ABOUT

Elinor Lipman

Elinor Lipman was born in Massachusetts and is the author of fourteen novels. Her first, Then She Found Me, was published in 1990 and adapted into the 2007 film of the same name starring Helen Hunt, Bette Midler and Colin Firth. She won the New England Book Award in 2001, and her novel My Latest Grievance won the Paterson Fiction Prize. Four of her novels are published in the UK by Lightning Books.

She lives in Manhattan.

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