Review: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

I was sick of memoirs and the swagger of survivors, the way they mounted the past above the mantel for all to ooh and aah over.

Set Up and Synopsis
Right before Woman No. 17, I’d had an odd run of books. It happens—I get in a rut and don’t love several books or I love all of them and I’m anticipating the run of goodness ending. More recently, I’ve somehow wound up on a run of books about racism—either directly or tangentially (Sing, Unburied, Sing, The Color Purple, Stella by Starlight, Trell, American Street) such that I needed something more pop than folk to reset and pull me out of the hole I had inadvertently dug myself with a series of serious books.

With Woman No. 17, it was a bit of a roller coaster right before—several good, one amazing, several “meh.” I knew I had the string of books starting with Sing, Unburied, Sing coming so I wanted something a little mindless. I thought I was picking up a thriller. That’s what Woman No. 17 sounds like, right? A serial killer is on a spree, but he’s going to mess up on woman number 17….

Not even close.

“Woman No. 17” is Lady Daniels, a would-be writer currently separated from her husband, estranged from her mother, and in need of a nanny for her youngest child. Newly reinvented “S,” walks in to fill this void, spending her days as nanny and confidante to Lady and her nights drunkenly reinventing her mother’s life as an extended piece of performance art. As S. grows closer to Lady’s older son, Seth, it’s only a matter of time until all of the plates S. is spinning to keep up her façade spin out of control. While the book is engaging and will keep you glued to your seat, there is no serial killer running amok in the Hollywood Hills.

As an aside, if you ever needed proof that I occasionally pick books without reading the synopsis and solely because they’re Book of the Month picks or ones critics are talking about, this would be it. I do, however, feel vindicated that another Amazon reviewer thought they were also getting a mystery/thriller but also wound up pleasantly surprised.

Mothers & Identity
I certainly won’t claim it is universal, but the most fraught relationship many women have is with their mothers. Women No. 17 takes the typical tension and turns up the voltage by ten.

Esther Shapiro—now S. Fowler, after her mother’s maiden name—reinvents herself as her mother—from the roots of her hair to the tips of her liver—inhabiting her mother’s personality and mannerisms down to her functioning alcoholism. Lady has spent her life trying to escape from her own mother, whose interference in Lady’s early life far exceeded simple “meddling.” Even Lady’s husband, Karl, and his twin sister Kit have their own mommy-issues as adults who grew up with a parent who had a favored and disfavored child.

In exploring Lady and S.’s relationship with their mothers, Lepucki delves into how each woman’s identity was formed—and with S. how she is actively creating an identity for herself that mimics her mother’s. Lepucki hits the reader over the head with this theme of identity and mothers’ involvement–to me, this was the only area Lepucki was heavy-handed and could have pulled back a bit.

As the book progresses and Lady takes S. (and thus, the reader) into her confidence, her façade drops bit-by-bit until it isn’t entirely clear who Lady is—even to herself. Her birth name is Pearl—a name she rejects with the nickname “Lady.” On top of these, she is also Woman No. 17—the subject of one of Kit’s famous photographs. By giving her three different names, making clear she is different things to different people, Lepucki hammers the idea that Lady is not one coherent person, nor does she know who she is.

With the focus on identity and how mothers shape the women we become, Woman No. 17 becomes a fascinating character study of both Esther/S. and Lady and, tangentially, of the mothers they are trying to become and escape from at the same time.

The writing is snappy (Lady refers to her mother at one point as a “spiritual landfill in heels”) without being flowery or show-offy. The snap hits the right mark, flowed naturally, and didn’t leave me feel like Lepucki was trying too hard for the quirk. The writing is gritty in places, reminiscent of the imperfections and streaks in classic films. The grit fits the noir style—this story would be out of place if cleaned up by squeaky-perfect writing.

Ending (No Spoilers)
Books as dark and psychologically twisty as Woman No. 17 usually seem to end with no real resolution—the authors aren’t sure how to give the characters resolution, particularly something that might be a happy resolution, without having to also give them years of therapy to be believable and so—the books usually end without the reader knowing where the characters go from there. For a book of this twisty vein, Lepucki does a remarkable job providing a believable resolution for her characters. Lady and S.’s ends aren’t disingenuously happy but also aren’t so bleak as to be unsatisfying. They’re believable with enough hope for the future of both to be satisfying.

Woman No. 17 gets remarkably varied reviews on Amazon. This may be because others also judged the book by the title (and the cover doesn’t help) and thought the book was a thriller. Others seem to have found the characters too weird—I understand this to a point. I hope there aren’t a ton of people running around with S.’s pathological need to become her mother, manipulating and lying to everyone around them. There’s only so many of those folks society can take before we all fall to chaos. Similarly, several reviewers found many/most/ok all of the characters deeply unlikeable.

It’s dark without being bleak, Hollywood Noir without any actual crime. It doesn’t suffer from an ambiguous ending and, upon completion, it’s clear Lepucki knew where she was going. The book has a clear arc (in hindsight, not as much when reading) and is tightly crafted along this arc. As long as you can handle dark books with morally ambiguous characters and don’t have triggers regarding mother-daughter relationships, I’d recommend this book. While they are very different thematically and in style, I’d recommend Woman No. 17 particularly for readers who enjoyed The Fall of Lisa Bellow—there’s a similar undercurrent between the two that I think gives them a similar appeal.

Published May 9, 2017 by Hogarth (@hogarthbooks)
Author: Edan Lepucki (@edanlepucki)
Date read: August 26, 2017
Rating: 3 1/2 Stars

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