Then She Found Me

by Elinor LipmanNew York: Pocket Books, 1990307pp., $18.95 

When should we laugh at ourselves? And when does that laughter cross the line into harmful stereotypes? This is a question that Jewish women often ask themselves because of the prevalence of “JAP” and “Jewish mother” jokes.

Since humor can often make it easier for people to understand complex opinions and positions, there certainly is a place for its positive use, even when it borders on the stereotypic. And that’s exactly how Elinor Lipman uses it in this first, well-crafted novel, Then She Found Me. Tackling many difficult contemporary issues — adoption, the Holocaust, intermarriage and the search for birth parents and children — Lipman presents the tale of Bernice Graverman and April Epner.

Bernice, a popular Boston talk show host, searches for and finds the daughter she gave up for adoption at birth. April, the daughter, is a high school Latin teacher who has been raised in Providence, Rhode Island by Holocaust survivors. Bernice is crass and aggressive and weaves some 24 LILITH Winter 1991 pretty tall tales about April’s conception and birth. April, plain, Harvard-educated and not particularly interested in any “new” family history, tries to dodge Bernice’s advances while attempting to come to terms with her mid-thirties single life.

In between, surprisingly hilarious episodes quickly follow one another until the relationship between birth mother and daughter reaches a fairly predictable denouement. Yet there is plenty of tension along the way, and a lot of ground gets covered in the category of understanding your neighbors and their lifestyles too. Many of the characters are stereotypes, but Lipman uses this technique as a shorthand to get her message across. Since her points about mutual understanding are very important ones, we can forgive her the stereotyping.