Retired lawyer Henry Archer doesn't hold a grudge --- except maybe against his ex-wife Denise, who cheated on him and then left him for another man 25 years ago. Sure, Henry has actually come out of the closet since his divorce; but embracing his sexual orientation doesn't mean he appreciates the way his marriage ended. Henry, though, is a gentleman. When he hears that Glenn, Denise's husband, has died, he sends her a sympathy note.
Denise responds instantly, evidently seeming to be mistaking Henry for her very best friend. She cries on his shoulder, wailing over the fact that she signed a prenuptial agreement with Glenn, whose sons would inherit everything. The agreement would end at their 25th wedding anniversary, but Glenn died after they had been married for 24 years. Henry can barely get a word in to ask about the person he truly cares for --- and has yearned for --- for 25 long years: Denise's daughter, Thalia. Henry had adopted Thalia during his marriage to Denise, and he had never been happier than when being the father to this little girl. But when Denise married Glenn, Henry gave up custody to allow Glenn to adopt her. Whenever Henry asks about her daughter now, Denise changes the subject back to the person she most adores: Denise.
When Denise talks Henry into visiting her, in the apartment she will soon lose to her stepsons, Henry spies a graduation photograph of Thalia. He would have known her anywhere --- except he realizes, with a jolt, that he has actually been around the adult Thalia. He finally figures out that Thalia is the nice girl who takes his jacket and hands him a smock when he visits his hairdresser's salon. While he is thunderstruck at this revelation, he doesn't let on to Denise.
It's not time for a haircut, but Henry must see Thalia again, immediately. He makes an appointment for his first manicure ever. When he sees her, he can't believe he never noticed that she is his long-lost daughter. And after his manicure, he asks if he can take her to lunch and talk to her about something quite personal. Imagine Henry's amazement when Thalia is not only unsurprised by the news that she's lunching with her ex-stepfather, but she has actually known who he was all along. Soon, they are discussing his sexual orientation, how he and Denise met, their shared love for certain Italian dishes, Thalia's estrangement from her mother, and much more. As a matter of fact, Henry and Thalia have instant father/daughter chemistry.
Henry is surprised to hear that Thalia is an actor who has appeared in a commercial and a movie. However, he is absolutely certain she must be the most talented actor ever. The two agree to meet at least weekly, but now that Henry has spent time with Thalia, he is lonelier than ever. That's soon to change, though, for the dreaded Denise keeps bobbing back into his life. Henry's tolerance for his ex-wife is rewarded in a most unexpected and welcome way, but that doesn't distract him from assisting Thalia as she undertakes the acting job of her life, as the pretend girlfriend of a famous actor.
THE FAMILY MAN's quirky characters are irresistible, as is the often hilarious but always big-hearted storyline. Clever dialogue, a few romances and a quick plot pace add to the fun of Elinor Lipman’s charming page-turner, while the adorable and tender Henry is the tale's soul. The conclusion, complete with a few unforeseen twists, is wonderfully satisfying.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on January 21, 2011
The Family Man