The accidental carbon-monoxide poisoning deaths of an older woman and her lover are the catalyst in Elinor Lipman's new novel, "The Dearly Departed" (Random House, 269 pages, $23.95).
This, another in Lipman's string of mostly comedic romances with a bit of tragedy thrown in, chronicles the relationship that develops between each victim's adult child and their belated realization that they are linked by more than just mourning.
Along the way, the children, Sunny and Fletcher, must confront disappointments in their careers, struggle through romances and learn to take an adult view of their deceased parents. They also must adjust to life in King Georges, the sleepy New Hampshire town in which their parents died and in which Sunny spent a frustrated adolescence.
Like Lipman's previous books, "The Dearly Departed" clearly illustrates her affinity with the eccentric, and her gift for mixing laughs with life's difficulties in ways that seem plausible. Although the unexpected death of a parent is not funny, it is easy to sympathize with Sunny and Fletcher's travails as they reconcile their childhood conceptions about their parents with the reality of their parents' lives. Especially humorous are Lipman's descriptions of small-town gossiping and the propensity for drama.
But the book falters in its characters, who lack enough flesh for readers to fully empathize with them. Lipman did a marvelous job writing about the transition from childhood to adulthood in the context of subtle anti-Semitism in "The Inn at Lake Devine," but here she seems to struggle to convey realism in her characters. Sunny, Fletcher and the rest of the gang are quirky, but they lack the humanity that would help readers identify with them.
Although "The Dearly Departed" is an enjoyable read, it's not nearly as memorable or strong as some of Lipman's other books.