‘PIPPA LEE’ — FIRST THE BOOK, THEN THE ROMANTIC FILM VERSION
By Karen Brady
November 9, 2008 Sunday
Rebecca Miller’s fetching first novel — "The Private Lives of Pippa
Lee" — must be, for her, something of a double-edged sword. For who
can read this daughter of the great American playwright Arthur Miller
without comparison? Who can pick up her work without thinking of her
life as the wife of the eminent British actor Daniel Day-Lewis?
Who can learn that her "Pippa Lee" is already well on its way to
becoming a "major motion picture" without wondering if this would be
so without its author’s sterling connections?
Practically no one, I would venture — save perhaps the fictional
Pippa Lee whose multiple private lives as portrayed by Rebecca Miller
simply save the day, belying any privilege or connection.
Miller stands on her own with "Pippa Lee" as she has with much of her
previous work (including the novella collection "Personal Velocity"
and its movie adaptation, and the wonderful film "The Ballad of Jack
and Rose" which Miller also wrote and directed).
In "Pippa Lee," we have a woman defined by her man, the noted,
now elderly book editor Herb Lee, "heroic owner of one of the last
independent publishing houses in the country." Pippa, nearly 30
years younger than the esteemed Herb, has just moved with him from
Manhattan’s exclusive Gramercy Park to a quiet retirement community
called Marigold Village.
And, at first, "Wrinkle Village" (as it’s called by the locals)
seems just right, even freeing.
"A prelude to heaven," Pippa muses, a place with everything:
"swimming pool, restaurants, mini-mall, gas station, health food
store, yoga classes, tennis courts, nursing staff. There was an
on-call grief counselor, two marriage counselors, a sex therapist,
and an herbalist. . . . You never had to leave."
Yet, here, halfway between Long Island and Connecticut, Pippa begins
"When I was very young, I was always in the middle of some kind
of drama," she realizes, "and as I got older and had a family, I
gradually stopped being in the center, you know, I stepped aside,
and other people were in the center; when you have kids that just
sort of happens.
"And I got used to that. And now I am living this weird little drama
and I am the protagonist, and I just feel so crazy, even though I know
it’s a very commonplace problem, millions of Americans are probably
buttering up their stereos as we speak."
This is the nub of Miller’s allegory, elevated by her easy writing —
and wit. And, while Pippa, her heroine, doesn’t butter her stereo
(instead starting to sleepwalk, to eat, smoke and drive without
knowing it) Pippa senses she is at a crossroads.
Here, at the end of Herb’s illustrious life, their children grown,
Pippa must finally come into her own. But as whom? That is the story
here, and Miller takes us through it with sometimes jarring shifts
in person and time (along with some pretty preposterous events).
But then, "Pippa Lee" will soon be a movie and, read with that thought,
anything seems to go in this rather madcap, Saroyanesque tale of
Pippa (nee Sarkissian), a child of Swedish and Armenian descent,
whose mother, Suky, is a Dexedrine addict, and whose father, Des,
is an Episcopalian minister.
When Pippa runs away, after an affair with a high school teacher
("By high school, I was angry, and that made me cool"), it is to her
Aunt Trish, a lesbian living in a five-floor walk-up in New York City:
"So we’re a couple of black sheep, you and me," says Trish — words
Pippa finds "the nicest, most reassuring thing anyone had ever said
to me. I felt I belonged somewhere. I belonged on the outside, with
But Pippa doesn’t stay with Aunt Trish, moving on in her young life
to steamy sex parties, emotional scenes with her parents, stabs at
goodness and, one day, Herb.
bigcap,3 NNever mind that Herb’s wife Gigi commits suicide over his
impending marriage to Pippa: "My wedding dress was very light pink. I
thought of it as white, with one drop of Gigi’s blood in it."
And Herb and Gigi’s friends? "Well, they folded me in, like raisins
in a cake recipe that doesn’t call for them but won’t be ruined by
Twins are born ("tender Ben and tyrannical Grace") and Pippa spends
20 years as the-woman-behind-the-man, wining and dining New York’s
literati while raising the twins using her mother Suky "as an inverse
model," eating proper meals, seldom drinking, taking no medication.
Through it all, Pippa sees in retrospect, she and Herb "lived as if
we deserved our luck."
A flimsy tale on the face of it — but, in Miller’s subtle telling,
a strong one as Pippa, shorn of her wifely and motherly duties,
is drawn to Chris, the unsuccessful, faith-driven, nomadic son of a
Marigold Village neighbor.
We, of course, know where this is going long before it does.
After several hilarious yet somehow profound plot twists, Pippa stops
being the wife who serves butterflied lamb — and plunges, "with fear
and happiness," into what we suspect will be a more authentic beyond.
One is reminded of T. S. Eliot’s play "The Cocktail Party,"
masquerading as drawing room comedy, to lure us into deeper waters.
Here, Miller’s grasp of all that a cloak of domesticity (and the
shadow of a great man) can conceal is a firm grasp indeed.
Her "Pippa Lee" may not be as moving, and certainly not as bleak,
as her excellent "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" — but it may well
make just as compelling a movie.