Title: And When She Was Good
Author: Laura Lippman
Publisher: William Morrow (HarperCollins)
Rating: 4 out of 5
How I got it: Borrowed a copy from the library
Note: Here be spoilers
“Compartmentalization” is the watchword of Heloise Lewis’s life. A mother living in the tony DC suburb of Turner’s Grove, she appears outwardly successful as the founder of the Women’s Full Employment Network, a lobby organization promoting income parity for women. But only a few people know the truth: WFEN is a front for her real business, an escort service for politicians and other professionals in Washington DC. And not even the one person who has access to both sides of her life, her au pair Audrey, knows the half of it: that Heloise, born Helen, is a former prostitute who reinvented herself.
But Heloise’s comfortable life is slowly crumbling. The father of her son — her former pimp, who doesn’t know that Helen was the one who turned him in and doesn’t even know he has a son — may soon be released from jail. One of her escort girls is trying to blackmail her after contracting HIV. Her accountant is starting to ask loaded questions. And, most worrying of all, another “suburban madam” has turned up dead, and the circumstances surrounding that are more than what they seem.
Heloise may be good, but she’ll have to be very, very good to get out of this mess alive.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. And When She Was Good is 1) a thriller, 2) with a female protagonist, 3) taking place in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, and 4) written by a female author. There’s probably one big question on your lips: Is it like Gone Girl?
Yes. Kind of.
There are shades of Gone Girl here, but that’s because Gillian Flynn’s book is so monolithic that, post 2012, any thriller whose plot involves a smart woman controlling an edifice of lies falls under its shadow. And, like GG, Laura Lippman’s book does feature a somewhat unreliable narrator.
But Heloise, unlike Amy Dunne, isn’t unreliable because she’s trying to control the flow of information. Heloise is unreliable because she’s spent her entire life walking through a minefield, and has become overconfident in her ability to identify a landmine waiting underfoot. And When She Was Good is all about the tension of wondering whether this is the time she’ll finally make a wrong step and get permanently mangled.
However, if there’s a story that And When She Was Good really reminds me of, I’d have to say it’s an Elmore Leonard one — Jackie Brown, because Heloise isn’t trying to hoodwink the national media so much as frantically stay one step ahead of everyone else. (I say Jackie Brown because I’ve seen the film but haven’t read Rum Punch, its source material. I really need to read more Elmore Leonard some day…)
There are a lot of things to appreciate about this book. The razor sharp prose. The careful doling out of information and interweaving of present and past. The slow burn of tension as Heloise’s life gets dismantled brick by brick. The desperate aspiration to a life of middle-class ease for her son. The perfect sense of time and place in a cloistered post-recession suburb full of yummy mummies and political strivers.
However, And When She Was Good is not perfect. Heloise prides herself on being a smart woman, but when everything shakes out, it turns out that Audrey — whom Heloise respects, but somewhat dismisses because she’s not that pretty and likes tacky TV shows — turns out to have a more accurate bullshit detector. Ultimately, when Audrey saves Heloise, it feels anticlimactic, both because we find out that Audrey’s been right all along and because the final confrontation itself wasn’t drawn out enough.
I will admit that I took my time finishing And When She Was Good. The initial circumstances of Helen’s life, where she was the victim of physical abuse by her father and sexual exploitation by her first boyfriend, filled me with unease. But that’s because I’ve lived a very lucky, sheltered life. The first 100 or so pages of the book filled me with a sense of There but for the grace of God go I.
Does this book put a glossy spin on such a sad set of circumstances? Yes. But is there truth underneath the gloss? Yes. I’m still trying to figure out how much of my discomfort over the book is because of the guilt I feel about my own relatively happy life or because of my dissatisfaction with an abrupt climactic scene. I don’t read a lot of thrillers, so your mileage may vary.
What Tea Suits This Book?
Tea doesn’t play a huge role in And When She Was Good, but Heloise/Helen does occasionally sip green tea. However, when I think of Heloise, I think of a young sheng (raw) pu’erh tea: her youth was bitter, but put her in hot water and she’ll survive again and again.