Woman No. 17, though enchanting and seductive in cover art and plot synopsis (it’s got it all—complicated mothers, complex female relationships, artists discussing art, Hollywood being Hollywood, devastating truths simmering underneath, etc.) the novel proved to be drowning in the really shallow end of the L.A. noir pool.
Lady Daniels, an unlikable and mostly unrelatable mother figure, befriends her nanny Esther “S” Shapiro, an unlikable and entirely un-feminist performance/visual artist who moves into the cottage behind Lady’s small mansion in the Heights. Lady’s got a studly teenage son (he’s eighteen, this isn’t really edgy) who is also selectively mute and lives with her. Lady is as obsessed with her eldest son Seth as she’s allowed to be and remain on the verge of helicopter creepy parent, whereas her relationship with her youngest son is more removed. Lady is struggling as a debut writer, attempting to compose a book about motherhood, about raising a selectively mute son, while “S”, still rocking from a pretty average break up that happened in college, seeks solace in pretending to be her alcoholic, disengaged, petulant mother. She wears her mother’s clothes, emulates her style and ease, drinks like her mother does, taking pictures alone the way to document this performance art piece. And then she has a brief and unimportant affair with Lady’s mute son, which goes nowhere and offers nothing to the overall point of the novel—which to be fair, is just… “Wow, motherhood is emotionally taxing and moms are people, too!”
It’s hard to offer an opinion on this novel when it feels like huge, meaningful chunks of it are missing. The characters are unlikable in a really tiresome way. I love unlikable females, they’re my favorite females. But Lady’s selfish, petty, boring, mediocre personality doesn’t make her a protagonist anyone is rooting for or wants to watch. And Esther is even worse. We get nothing of her previous personality before she dawns her mother’s, and as she becomes this blend of both, this “something new” in between, we’re expected to admire the growth when none has occurred. The episodes of eroticism, sex, scandal that were meant to shock, didn’t. Anything meaningful there is to say about self-expression wasn’t said. If this was a satire about self-important artists in LA I would have loved it, but it took itself too seriously to be a satire.
Overall I was achingly disappointed because I had waited so long to read this novel. Maybe I should have picked up California first, Lepucki’s first novel, which is based on a dystopian future that feels more up to speed with this author’s natural writing. She needs to write dramatic, fast, out of breath fiction, rather than this empty pause of a novel.
In spite of my review, this book has some great Memorable Quotes:
“All of these Berkeleyites looked the same, I told him, which suggested that it wasn’t only their clothes that were identical, but their beliefs, their families, their diets, their thoughts, their everything. While they were enjoying their retirement plans and succulent gardens, my generation was facing underemployment and debt. Despite what they wanted to believe, the boomers hadn’t changed shit about the world.”
“Language as two functions: to harm and to repair harm.”
“The tequila was making me feel like a ballerina assassin as I slipped into the dark house: graceful and bitchy and invincible.”
“The thing Lady didn’t get, or the thing she’d forgotten, was that being a child was painful too. She was so wrapped up in losing Seth, in the treacheries of him growing up, that she couldn’t remember what it felt like to be the one on the other side. The burden of that. Sure, Seth had left her womb and never returned, but he was the one who had to do the leaving.”