I’m always impressed when an author can move successfully between two different voices and perspectives in the same novel. Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a good example of this. The story features two separate narrators. The first is Lady Daniels, fledgling writer and recently separated mother of two sons living in the privileged world of the Hollywood Hills. The other is Esther “S,” the young nanny Lady hires to look after her toddler, Devin.
The story alternates between the two perspectives, both voices distinctive. I though Lepucki did an especially good job of making S sound young, though, for her youth, she probably displayed remarkable self-awareness. On the other hand, Lady doesn’t so much. And that’s part of her character.
Throughout the book, the women form a friendship. Lady has her first book deal and is struggling to write a memoir about herself and her older son, Seth, an 18-year-old who is mute. Seth is the son of Lady and an ex-boyfriend, Marco, who left the two when Seth was a baby. Now, lady is married to rich husband Karl and they have two-year-old Devin together.
S is a recent college graduate embarking on an art project that involves imitating the personality of her unreliable mother. She dresses, speaks, and drinks like her mom did in her youth, presenting a facade to Lady, while intensifying her “project” (aka, a lot of drinking) at night in the pool cottage where she lives. In the meantime, S and Seth form a relationship.
Mothers are a major theme in the novel as both Lady and S have fraught relationships with their mothers. Lady gives us background on her mother, also unreliable, but firmly in the past. And S’s feelings about her mother are revealed through current interactions throughout the book.
Social media plays a key role too. Lady is new to Twitter and her tweets are at turns funny and sad, but always revealing. Seth is on Twitter as well and it’s one of the ways he communicates.
Twitter helps bring things to a head when both Lady and her son Seth separately track down Marco on the platform, ending in a climactic scene the novel builds to steadily over the course of the book.
There are lots of fun details that add to the personalities of the characters and bring the setting, the Hollywood Hills, to life. For example, there’s Lady’s husband’s twin sister, Kit Daniels, a hugely successful photographer who plays the role of villainess in Lady mind.
Kit is a pretentious artist with money who dresses in “edgy” L.A. fashion, and capitalizes the nouns in her emails. You get a sense that Lepucki is poking fun at the L.A. art scene with her. Kit is an important character and gives the book its title as she took the photo of Lady that is titled Woman No. 17. Likewise, S tells the story of a college boyfriend, another pretentious artist who breaks up with her because art is “all I care about.”
Overall, the tone and feel of the book reminded me of kind of a mash-up of some of those super popular dark thrillers (Girl on the Train, etc.) with the malaise and quirkiness of a book like Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. I enjoyed the atmosphere.
Have you read it? Tell me what you thought!