Twisted minds and survival of the fittest come to mind as I think over Laura Lippman’s latest novel And When She Was Good.Madam Heloise/Helen Lewis lives on the brink, never being sure she’s safe, never being totally sure she’s a good mother, never being sure she can trust her employees, never knowing whether her life decisions have been wise.
Heloise runs several cover businesses, most prominent of them being as a Washington lobbyist for Women’s Full Employment Network.She lunches with her favorite legislator, Paul, and is seen in the right places. She has an insider friend, Tom, in the police department. Always she is under tension talking with them--what to say, how to say it, how to convey her intended meaning. Always planning ahead for important conversations in order to get what she wants.
She seems to be a survivor. Her mentor and father of her son, Val, is a murderer in prison for life and Heloise knows too much. His ability to manipulate her even from his prison cell lends tension to the plot and keeps Heloise in suspense about her future. Each of them rationalizes their decisions in a way that many might call twisted.
Heloise has built her philosophy of life based on a difficult growing up time—her father was a ne’er-do-well; her men were takers; her mother was a victim. All in all, not the background for wise decision making as an adult. It’s not hard to understand when, midway through the book, Heloise visits her mother, who has a serious disease. Her mother says: “You have to have hope.”Heloise responds: “Why?” She tries but simply can't see such hope as a possibility for herself. Instead, “She wants [her son Scott] to wake up every day knowing he is loved and safe. Heloise can’t remember the last time she felt those two things.” (187)
If cleverness, intrigue and a distinctly different setting are your reading interests, thenLaura Lippman’s new book is work looking at.
And When She Was Good is prolific and oft-honored crime novelist Laura Lippman's eighteenth (let me reiterate: eighteenth) fiction. And let me add: It was not what I was expecting.
A crime novel about a suburban madam murdered and living in fear for her life: yes.
An in depth exploration of the life of said (latter) suburban madam, with all the mundane as well as the spicy details of business and home laid bare: not so much.
Ifyou've ever wondered what such a business venture might entail, this book - although fictional - will plausibly illuminate as much as you could wish, stopping just shy of actually stepping you through a financial audit and/or a graphic sex scene. In a way, that's a rather unusual triumph for Ms. Lippman: she manages to write a solidly paced novel with a well-defined protagonist who's a lifelong prostitute and seasoned madam without resorting to a single "shades of gray" moment.
So here's what stumped me: Based on the cover blurb and the genre identification, I thought this novel would focus on solving a crime, on legal and criminal matters, on mystery. But it really didn't. It was more of an evenly unfolding slice-o-suburban-madam-life story. We explore Heloise's childhood at the hands of her abusive father, then her "escape" into the arms of a different-but-equally-abusive beau, and her later slide into prostitution as she attempts to pay for said beau's drug habit. And (surprise!) she then gets pregnant by her pimp. The rest would pile spoiler upon spoiler, so I'll simply say that via flashbacks we eventually catch up to the present moment in which Heloise and her perfectly soccer-playing-and-sensitive-chef-to-be, twelve-year-old son Scott reside in a McMansion in suburban Baltimore, with Scott entirely unaware that mom Hel is doing a plausible impersonation of a womens' rights lobbyist/soccer mom while actually running a 21st century version of the world's oldest biz.
p.s. I kept waiting for the title to resonate, but I still don't get it.
Mom & Who?
Mom's a retired science librarian/tech writer in New Mexico; I'm a high school English teacher in Washington state. We share a love of lifelong learning (not a day goes by...), cooking shows, travel, show tunes, our two-legged and four-legged family members, and - of course - books.
Once a month or so, we offer up a tandem review about a new book we both suspect you'll enjoy. We hope you'll find our "dialogue" valuable reading in and of itself, and that we'll inspire you to try your own inter-generational read-along, be it with our picks or with your own.