Lemann, Nancy (Elise) 1956-
LEMANN, Nancy (Elise) 1956-
PERSONAL: Born February 4, 1956, in New Orleans, LA; daughter of Thomas (a lawyer) and Barbara Lemann; married Mark Paul Clein, October 5, 1991. Education: Brown University, B.A., 1978; Columbia University, M.F.A., 1984.
ADDRESSES: Home—254 West 73rd St., No. 5, New York, NY 10023.
MEMBER: PEN, Authors Guild.
Lives of the Saints (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.
The Ritz of the Bayou (nonfiction), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Sportsman's Paradise (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.
The Fiery Pantheon (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 1998.
Malaise (novel), Scribner (New York, NY), 2002.
Contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, People, Washington Post, New Republic, New York Times, and the New York Review of Books.
SIDELIGHTS: Nancy Lemann earned acclaim with her first novel, Lives of the Saints, the story of a recent New York University graduate, Louise Brown, who has returned to her home in the South and resumed a relationship with Claude Collier, an older neighbor well known for his aimlessness and eccentricities. Louise is transfixed by Claude's charm and his Southern heritage, even though she knows he is a charming good-for-nothing who drinks and gambles excessively. As Claude's girlfriend, Louise becomes acquainted with other members of the Collier family, whom she worships despite their various quirks, going so far as to call them "saints."
Lives of the Saints established Lemann as an accomplished new writer. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times compared Lemann's novel to Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which similarly charts the demise of the English aristocracy. Like Brideshead, Kakutani contended, Lives of the Saints is "a lovely, grave elegy for lost innocence, for lost youth and a vanished world." Anne Tyler, writing in the New Republic, described the book "as a long poem—a hysterically funny poem that is also beautifully written." For Tyler, Lemann's writing—full of repetitions and wordplay—resulted in "an almost hypnotic portrait of unforgettable people in a strange and magnificent city." Sven Birkerts, also writing in the New Republic, enjoyed Lemann's prose, saying that her "voice . . . combined drop-dead wryness with an unapologetic romantic susceptibility," concluding that "the novel was a triumph of tone."
Lemann followed Lives of the Saints with The Ritz of the Bayou, a nonfiction account of Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards's trials for racketeering in the mid-1980s. Lemann presents the trials—notably the first one—as largely comedic affairs, where court opponents square off before an assortment of political cronies, gentlefolk, and Edwards himself, whom Chicago Tribune reviewer Douglas Seibold characterized as "a notorious womanizer, gambler and all-around Cajun good ol' boy." Seibold noted that "desperate gaiety is the chief distinguishing feature" of The Ritz of the Bayou, which he praised as "fine entertainment." People reviewer Ralph Novak was likewise impressed, noting that Lemann's book is "peculiar, annoying, insidious, shrewd, fascinating."
Sportsman's Paradise is a sequel of sorts to Lives of the Saints, and focuses on Storey Collier—Claude Collier's cousin—a thirty-something New York columnist who romanticizes her Southern history and surrounds herself with vestiges of it in Manhattan and at her weekend Long Island retreat, Orient Point. Times Square reminds her of New Orleans, and the eccentrics she comes to know on Long Island remind her of the misanthropic, oddball characters of her Southern youth. Throughout the long summer weekends, she listens to baseball games on the radio with her boyfriend, Hobby Fox, a stoic and enigmatic former major-league ball player and current editor with the New York Examiner. The cast of characters is rounded out by Storey's captivating editor, Mr. Underwood; Orient Point's extravagant matriarch, Grace Fox; and Claude's three preternaturally wise children. Storey pines for Hobby in the way that Louise pines for Claude in Lives of the Saints; she views him through the gauzy lens of Southern hospitality and history, romanticizing him and turning him into an honorary Southerner, all while attributing his many faults to his unknowable nature and sordid past, and forgiving them in the process.
Though the plot of Sportsman's Paradise is convoluted and the characters hard to keep track of, according to Birkerts, the "real point—and triumph" of the novel, he wrote, "is its registration of sensibility.... Like Lives of the Saints before it, [it is] a vast exhalation of romantic yearning." Again, Birkerts concluded by complimenting Lemann's style: "Her wonderfully rhythmic, off-center prose installs the reader squarely inside the life of a foolish, obsessive, but emotionally forthright young woman." Other critics praised the novel as well. A writer for Publishers Weekly found that "Lemann's style requires patience," but that readers are rewarded by observations that are "frequently hilarious." Martha Duffy of Time called it "a slow, sly mint julep of a novel," concluding that "the pleasures of reading Lemann lie in her sure characterization and limpid style."
"A novel of manners," is how Margot Mifflin of Entertainment Weekly described Lemann's next book, The Fiery Pantheon. As New Orleans native Grace Stewart is getting ready to marry Monroe, a traditional Southern gentleman, she finds herself enthralled with Walter, a slick younger man and Wall Street analyst who reveres James Bond. Walter latches on to Grace while her family vacations at a Virginia mountain resort and becomes besotted with her, hoping to join her "fiery pantheon" of heroes, which is headed by Grace's father, a proper gentleman who ignores the changing times and extols family honor above all else. When Monroe is not able to join Grace for her family's celebratory trip to Europe, Walter takes his place, and Grace finds herself aroused by a strange passion that is at odds with her stoic sense of virtue and honor. Grace emerges from her drab stasis, recovers from her crippling sense of romanticism, and finds that "the real meaning of honor is personal integrity," wrote Julia Reed in the New York Times Book Review, who called the book "a lovely, lyrical work of fiction." Brad Hooper of Booklist called the novel "sweet, funny, uncomplicated," with a "deliciously untidy and ultimately happy" ending.
In Malaise, the spell of the South is ever-present even in southern California, where Fleming Ford has recently relocated after a youth as a small-town Alabama belle and many years as a contented New Yorker. Though a temperate paradise, California has its quirks, and Fleming finds herself slow to adapt to her new home and its peculiarities while she cares for her two toddlers. Pregnant again at age forty and left by herself while her geologist-husband works on a secret project to sell underground water to Mexico, Fleming becomes attracted to the much older Harry Lieberman, a English gentleman and media magnate who owns the New York newspaper for which Fleming writes. Even though Harry is on the verge of "decrepitude," Fleming finds herself drawn to him because of their shared ties to the South—the world she longs for—and because of his experience and air of permanence. Traveling from the brand-new border town of Esperanza to meet him for lunch at his hotel in Los Angeles, Fleming yearns for something of substance and history in her life, and the plot hinges on whether or not she will succumb to an affair with him. In the end, however, she allows herself to be seduced by California itself, a paradise not as new and not as antithetical to her sense of history as she first imagines.
Malaise drew the same kind of attention as Lemann's previous novels. "Lemann is not simply a quirky stylist steeped in the sometimes impenetrable ways of the South," wrote Karen Karbo in the New York Times Book Review, "not just a sharp observer of the less regional if equally mystifying ways of the human heart. She's also terrifically funny and can write a story that rocks." Critics noted a lack of a focused plot in the book, but some excused the oversight. "Lemann's prose rambles and is sometimes breathless, sometimes coy," wrote Robin Beeman of the San Francisco Chronicle, who nevertheless admired the fact that Fleming evolves during the course of the novel. A critic for Kirkus Reviews wrote that "there's no need for plot if atmosphere, attitude, and plenty of good talk can carry you along."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 75-78.
Booklist, May 1, 1992, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 1584; February 15, 1998, Brad Hooper, review of The Fiery Pantheon, p. 982.
Chicago Tribune, September 21, 1987.
Entertainment Weekly, March 27, 1998, Margot Mifflin, review of The Fiery Pantheon, p. 64.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1992, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 344; January 1, 1998, review of The Fiery Pantheon, p. 12; April 15, 2002, review of Malaise, p. 518.
Library Journal, May 1, 1992, review of Sportsman'sParadise, p. 118; February 15, 1998, Shannon Haddock, review of The Fiery Pantheon, p. 170; May 1, 2002, Wilda Williams, review of Malaise, p. 134.
Los Angeles Times, September 30, 1987.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 28, 1985, p. 5; July 19, 1992, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 11.
New Republic, June 24, 1985, pp. 36-38; May 18, 1992, Sven Birkerts, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 48.
New York Review of Books, June 27, 1985, pp. 33-34.
New York Times, May 25, 1985, p. 13.
New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1985, p. 20; March 29, 1998, Julia Reed, "Maid of Honor," p. 30; June 2, 2002, Karen Karbo, "The Old and the Restless," p. 11.
People, October 19, 1987, pp. 21-22.
Publishers Weekly, March 23, 1992, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 60; December 15, 1997, review of The Fiery Pantheon, p. 47; June 3, 2002, review of Malaise, p. 64.
San Francisco Chronicle, June 16, 2002, Robin Beeman, review of Malaise, p. 4.
Time, May 11, 1992, Martha Duffy, review of Sportsman's Paradise, p. 62; June 3, 2002, review of Malaise, p. 64.
Washington Post, July 9, 1985.*