It begins with a girl.
No, it begins with a mother, and how that girl thinks of her, wants to please her, wants to be her, hates her.
How to fill the void left by a mother who can’t seem to get it right? Do you find a new mother?
Be your own mother? Create a mother with art, with work, with the barriers you put up against the world?
This is a book about mothers, but it is also a book about identity and how much of that identity, especially for girls, is based upon mothers. It is about individuality, about growing up (or not) and finding your place in the world, and then filling that space with something.
Esther, who goes by S, wants to be a subversive, or at least some kind, of artist and she’s recently broken up with her boyfriend. Now she feels the need to prove herself, to do something big—something with meaning that will get her noticed. But she also needs a job, so she becomes a live-in nanny for Lady, an aspiring writer recently separated from her (very-rich) husband, and the mother of two boys, a young toddler, Devin, and a teenager, Seth.
What follows is an entangled narrative, each character wrapped up in so much more than just the simple timeline of the book. The past beats heavily in them, even if they don’t know why.
While the book is focused on the actions of the characters in the present, it is swirling with the tensions of the past. Both Lady and S have strong connections to their mothers that they can’t ignore, and they are constantly trying to come to terms with their damaging upbringings, even as their current situations spiral out of control.
Lady is estranged from her mother and her issues and insecurities run deep. Her mom seems to be the main reason why she’s writing a memoir, though she can't quite admit that to herself, and though she’s living the high life in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills now, that is not at all where she came from.
S’s parents are divorced and it seems like S takes on more of the parenting role when she’s around her mom—cleaning up her apartment, getting rid of the alcohol, confiscating a bunny that is sure to get her mom evicted. But still, S clings to her mother, wanting to know who she is, or perhaps why she turned out the way she did, even taking on her identity as part of her new art project. S dresses sloppily like her mom, acts carefree, speaks like her, and drinks wildly. The “S” that Lady knows is not Esther.
And then there’s Seth. He’s never said a single word despite being completely normal otherwise, and he vibrates with a strange energy, like a bomb ready to go off at any point. His mom has protected him his whole life, kept him to herself, but it has become smothering and he wants to experience, he wants to know.
There are surprises here. There are rich characters living dense, real lives, dealing with modern and strange situations. While I didn’t fully connect with California, Lepucki’s first novel, this one feels much more resonant and true to me.
There is a shocking disregard for what identity means in our tech-crazed world, where you can hide behind your social media feed, where you can be some form of anonymous whenever you touch the screen. And who are you really? Are you who you are in the real world? Or are you the screen you? Are you who you used to be? Are you your parents? Some sort of amalgam?
The way Esther puts on her mother’s skin with such ease is almost scary—it is like taking over someone’s identity simply because she was tired of her own, or possibly lacked her own altogether. The way these characters struggle to come to terms with what it means to be themselves is fascinating and wrenching. They deal with a two-sided coin: the real-world identity struggle of shedding the sins of your parents, and the meta-world struggle of forming a persona through social media or creative means: This is what our society is.
Thoughtful, well-written, highly evocative of a specific place and a specific moment, this book is well worth a read if you’re looking for more depth than a quick summer read.
Get your copy of Woman No. 17 here
Find out more about Edan Lepucki
Find out more about the publisher, Hogarth/Crown (Penguin Random House)
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.