Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press
I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.
But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I” — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.
Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.
The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.
Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.
We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:
It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.
There, there. So there.
Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.
There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:
It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?
How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.
This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.
Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.