I had not even finished the first chapter of Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 when I realized it was not what I expected. I had seen it described as noir and the cover and marketing had me prepared for some Single White Female thrills. But no, Woman No. 17 is far more interesting and much more fun.
Woman No. 17 might seem like a She Said/She Said story, but only if both of them are telling the truth as they see it. First we have Lady, a forty-something woman who on the surface seems very Beverly Hills. She’s well-off and is hiring a nanny even though she doesn’t work. But that’s not quite true, she’s writing a memoir about being the mother of a child with special needs, Seth, a young man with mutism who is nearly adulthood and starting to break away from the shelter of his mother’s protection.
Then we have the nanny, S, who is play-acting, taking on a dangerous and damaging role, play-acting her mother, who drank to excess and who was a devastating parent for Esther, the daughter S is trying to erase in her performance art. S/Esther is an artist without the confidence to see herself as one, so her art is secretive and subversive to her own well-being, pushing her to drink in homage to her mother. She’s caring for Devin, a bright two-year-old and secretly carrying on with Seth, the brilliant and rebelliously angry eighteen year-old.
Orbiting Lady we have Karl, her long-suffering and loving husband and his bitter, bossy sister Kit, the self-realized artist that S longs to be. In another galaxy, there’s Marco, Seth’s father who disappeared long ago. Then there are the parents, S/Esther’s mother and Lady’s long-estranged mother. Lady and S have secrets, Seth has secrets, there are so many secrets and they all have at least one, even little Devin.
This is a witty novel that explores honestly, secrecy, parenting and friendship. It seems every parent is a faulty parent, Seth is angry with Lady. Lady is angry with her mother, S is angry with her mother. It’s a story of love, anger, and forgiveness – or its lack. I found Lady sympathetic. Flawed, screwed up, but constantly striving to be a good parent. I was less sympathetic toward S/Esther and Seth. I like Karl and thought Lady was making a series of mistakes. Which all goes to show, this is a book that engaged me mentally and emotionally and made me care.
Lady is very candid. She’s supposed to be writing a memoir but the familiar tropes of disability moms frustrate her. She thinks she’s not the person to write what they want because she is not that kind of mom. That is the honest that makes this book so fascinating. It’s a book that will make you laugh at loud while keeping you always eager to see what comes next. It does not try to squeeze any tears out of you, but you darn well better laugh.