Friday, July 26, 2019

Book Review: Lady in the Lake

By Jami Deise

When Baltimore-based author Laura Lippman published her first book, Baltimore Blues, starring romantically challenged PI Tess Monaghan, some critics referred to her series as “chick lit with a gun.” While some may have been insulted – it was the latter part of the 1990's, and Bridget Jones and her friends were all the rage – Lippman embraced the title, and Tess went on to star in 11 more books, the latest published in 2015. Later, Lippman branched out into stand-alone crime novels, becoming one of the most celebrated authors in the genre. Her 2003 release, Every Secret Thing, was made into a movie in 2014 starring Diane Lane. With the freedom earned by her success, Lippman’s last several stand-alone novels have explored themes and structures originally introduced by other authors: Wilde Lake was an homage to To Kill a Mockingbird; Sunburn to Double Indemnity, and her current release, Lady in the Lake, to Marjorie Morningstar. While all Lippman’s works are compelling—I still get chills thinking about I’d Know You Anywhere -- Lady in the Lake could be her most impactful yet.

Confession: I’ve been a Lippman fan since her first release, devouring books by her and her fellow female-PI-series authors Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and Marcia Mueller while commuting on the D.C. metro back in my working mother/PR director days. With Lippman’s Baltimore background and the fact that she and I both attended high school in Columbia, Maryland, I was especially appreciative of her work. She’s one of the favorite authors I share with my mother, who graduated from Forest Park High School in Baltimore in 1959, just like a major character in Lippman’s book After I’m Gone. More recently, I’ve been lucky enough to take classes with her through St. Petersburg’s Writers in Paradise conference; as a teacher, she’s just as confident as she is a writer. Other instructors I’ve had are reluctant to give their opinions and advice on a student’s plot choices; Lippman does not hold back.

I read Marjorie Morningstar a few years ago at the separate suggestion of both my mother and Lippman; each had cited the book as a favorite. Set in 1930's New York City, the novel follows Marjorie Morgenstern as she embarks on a career as an actress while pursuing an ultimately doomed relationship with a fellow aspiring thespian, Noel. Eventually Marjorie, while hard-working and attractive, is neither talented enough to succeed as an actress, nor desperate enough to marry Noel (whom, in my reading, appears bi-polar). She settles down to become an upper middle-class Jewish housewife. The book ends on an epilogue from the point of view of Wally, a younger man who had idolized Marjorie and who eventually did become successful in the theatre world. Seeing her as an “old woman” of 39, he’s grateful that he didn’t end up with Marjorie after all. Published in 1955, the book spent half a year on the New York Times bestseller list, creating controversy over its portrayal of Jewish New York City. For me, reading it in 2017, it mostly reinforced how women in the years before legal birth control were valued almost solely for their virginity. As conservatives work toward making abortion and birth control illegal again, I wonder if we will return to these days where a woman is only seen as worthwhile if she’s pure. While Lady in the Lake takes place in the early 1960's, as the Republican party works toward moving the clock backwards, the themes that Lippman explores are, unfortunately, timeless.

Lippman’s Morningstar-inspired character, Maddie Schwartz, begins the novel as a Mrs. Dalloway, fretting about dinner party guests for her home in Pikesville, where the upper middle-class Jewish folks of Baltimore live. But what if Marjorie, egged on by Wally’s dismissive treatment of her, decides to reclaim her life after spending her entire adulthood as a married mother? This question seems to be Lippman’s way into her story. Although her husband seems to adore her, with her son nearly college-age, Maddie is ready to reclaim life on her own terms. She leaves her husband, moves into a seedy apartment, takes an inappropriate lover, and talks her way into a job at the Star newspaper, re-claiming a dream she’s had since high school. When the body of an African-American woman is found in a lake in a Baltimore park, Maddie investigates the story – no one else seems to care about the victim, nor her ties to a local black businessman/political candidate.

Lippman, a former newspaper reporter who continued to work for the Baltimore Sun even as Tess Monaghan gained popularity, uses her own skills and journalistic tenacity to make Maddie a natural newshound. (However, my one quibble with the book is that the true identity of a young girl’s killer is rather obvious—Maddie should have figured it out and been prepared. But there’s a fabulous twist at the end that I did not see coming that makes up for it.) Still, like Marjorie Morningstar, this book is about so much more than the mystery of who killed Cleo Sherwood. A 1960's Baltimore where no one cares about the death of a young black woman is not so different from a 2019 Baltimore where no one cares about the deaths of young black men. A 1960's Baltimore where a female reporter isn’t taken seriously isn’t so different from the 2019 media industry, where a woman can be sued for creating a “shitty men in media list” to warn other women about the men in the profession who can’t keep their hands to themselves. A 1960's Baltimore where women are judged for whom they sleep with isn’t so different from a 2019 America where states are conspiring to take away women’s reproductive choices. And Maddie’s divorce story resonated particularly with me, a 51-year-old aspiring author whose husband of 28 years abruptly divorced her less than a year ago in order to date other women.

The book ends with an epilogue that reveals that Maddie goes on to a long, trail-blazing, award-winning career in journalism. However, it seems that true love has passed her by. Her ex-husband seemingly remarried a much younger woman less than a year after Maddie left him; her inappropriate lover went on to marry and have a family of his own. But Maddie, Lippman implies, had to choose between a career and finding love again; she chose a career. For whatever reason, she could not have both.

Although Maddie did get to experience marriage and motherhood, she reminded me so much of women I worked for in the 1990's. A generation older, they had sacrificed their personal lives in order to have careers, and they seemed to resent women like me who bought into the myth that we could have it all. We could not, of course. The years I worked full time while trying to raise a toddler –the mid-to-late 1990's; the Clinton years -- turned out to be the peak years for full-time working moms in this country. With daycare becoming more and more expensive and difficult to find, mothers began throwing in the towel, becoming helicopter moms and PTA presidents, using everything we learned about project management, fundraising, and communication to give our children a boost while our husbands’ careers took off. (I note that this is true specifically for upper middle-class mothers. Other women had no choice but to work, sometimes putting their children in substandard day care to make ends meet.)

There’s never been a time where women have been able to “have it all.” Will there ever be? Or a time when people aren’t judged as less worthy because their skin is dark? A quote most often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. states that the arc of moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Books like Lady in the Lake reinforce my fear that the arc is actually a pendulum. Crime fiction holds up a mirror to society and reveals its biggest, darkest flaws. What’s bad for the country is very, very good for authors like Lippman. Rome may be burning, politicians may be fiddling, but our best writers are recording every minute of it.

Thanks to Faber & Faber for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Laura Lippman:

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