The Unbearable Lightness of Mrs. Day-Lewis

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee
By Rebecca Miller
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 239 pages,$23

I really wish that idle, procrastinatory Googling hadn’t informed me that The Private Lives of Pippa Lee is going to be a movie starring Robin Wright Penn, the Princess Bride who wed pugilistic Sean Penn and then basically dropped off the face of the earth; Julianne Moore, every credible indie director’s favorite choice of beatific mom; those goofy early-’90s slackers Winona Ryder and Keanu Reeves … and the cherry on top, the very blond Blake Lively of Gossip Girl. With apologies to my beloved colleague, Rex Reed, currently en vacances, this might very well be the ghastliest ensemble cast in the history of motion pictures.

But of course it’s going to be a movie: Pippa Lee isn’t so much a novel as a production, in every sense, by the writer-director Rebecca Miller, wife of our era’s finest actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. Together they form an intense, reclusive, dark and hungry-eyed couple who reside with their two young sons on some remote Irish estate (also, briefly and thrillingly, in my good friend’s former Thompson Street co-op apartment building). They lead a life of high-octane mutual multimedia creativity (when he’s not neck-deep in the Method, he cobbles), emerging briefly at awards season in weird outfits: The 2008 Oscars meant double-pierced ears and brown suede shoes for him; frizzled hair and Elvira-like brocade for her. It’s a stylistic eccentricity Ms. Miller has amply earned by being the daughter of the playwright Arthur Miller and the Magnum photographer Inge Morath, and the sister of a man with Down syndrome who was stuffed in an institution soon after his birth. How I long to eavesdrop on her analysis—surely it’s analysis, not therapy—à la Gena Rowlands in Woody Allen’s Another Woman.

Failing that, there are the slim volumes of her prose. Previously, Ms. Miller published Personal Velocity (2002), three novellas about three young women seeking independence, then turned it into a Sundance hit with memorable performances from Parker Posey as a talented editor who longs to leave her affable husband and Kyra Sedgwick stomping sulkily in and out of a pickup truck (I turned off the DVD player before the Fairuza Balk segment).

Pippa Lee persists with this theme. As it opens, the titular protagonist—part Swedish, part Armenian—is in her 50s and comfortably ensconced at a retirement community called Marigold Village with Herb, another talented editor, 30 years her senior. They have twins, a boy, Ben, and a girl, Grace. Pippa is something out of Chekhov, or Virginia Woolf, or Anne Tyler: “a happy married, well-off woman, a dedicated mother, generous hostess, a woman who seemed to those who knew her to be among the most gracious, the kindest, the loveliest, the most unpretentious and most reassuring ladies they had ever met.” But all is not as it seems.

Our heroine is having an identity crisis. She thinks with longing of the days when her children “looked up at her with such certainty in their little faces, and called her Mama. They knew, so she knew.” But what the heck is she now? Her daughter is becoming (like Inge) a successful photographer; they’ve never really gotten along, and it’s getting worse. “It was so lonely,” Pippa pithily notes, “knowing things about her children that they no longer remembered.” Also, she’s sleepwalking.

After a sturdy opener, the book quickly assumes a kind of Dagwood-sandwich structure, the meat of Pippa’s character piling up in haphazard slices. We learn in first-person flashback that her own mom, Suky, fed her a bottle well into adolescence and popped a lot of pills. Turning to drugs herself, young Pippa finds herself sleeping with a mustachioed male teacher; paddled and filmed by a lesbian pornographer in New York City (where anything can happen!); and returning to suburbia to confront super-freaky Suky in a particularly transgressive way. We learn how Pippa stole Herb from a dusky, busty beauty named Gigi. There will be, and is, blood.

Much of the writing in this section is vivid, brave and experimental—short, choppy chapters with titles like “Aha!” and “Shackles”—even when it’s off-putting. And the idea of mapping Pippa’s trajectory from drifter to complacent, competent hausfrau and back is an interesting one. But Ms. Miller’s Act III wraps things up too flimsily (maybe it’s more of an open-faced sandwich, in keeping with Pippa’s Scandinavian heritage). More people collapse; suddenly the narrative gets all General Hospital. By the time Pippa is sitting in a parked car in a mini-mall with a younger man, blearily watching “hundreds of white moths … whirling inside the columns of illuminated air” of the headlights, “their wings flapping desperately as if feeding on the light,” you can pretty much feel Ms. Miller framing the shot as she writes. (She also has painted and acted, by the way.) Still, through her persona as much as her projects, she manages to come off more as powerhouse than dabbler. And Mr. Day-Lewis—somehow one suspects we’re not gonna be catching him in a Batman prequel five years hence.

Alexandra Jacobs is editor at large of The Observer. She can be reached at ajacobs@observer.com.

The Unbearable Lightness of Mrs. Day-Lewis