Summer Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No. 17”

Edan Lepucki, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop who lives in L.A., did not expect her debut novel, California, to take off. But after Stephen Colbert recommended it on The Colbert Report, it became a best-seller.

I recently raced through Lepucki’s second novel, Woman No. 17.  This gorgeous, lyrical, edgy book is the perfect summer read.

Lepucki gracefully intertwines the stories of two women, one a writer and the other an artist. Lady Daniels (her real name is Pearl) has a contract to write a memoir about raising her mute son, Seth, now a college freshman. And S (her real name is Esther) is a live-in babysitter for Lady’s second son, Devin, a toddler.  She does not tell Lady she is an artist.

Lady’s life is complicated. She raised Seth on her own after her first husband, Marco, left her.  It took her years to accept that Seth could not speak. (He can hear.)  Was it the trauma of losing Marco?  Or was it physical?  It seems to be physical, but Lady is racked with guilt.  And now she and her second husband, Karl, are separated.  She doesn’t worry about energetic Devin, but her relationship with Seth is so intense she worries she will lose him to Karl and his artist sister, Kit Daniel.

S, a recent graduate of Berkeley, is equally complicated.  For a conceptual art project, she is dressing and drinking vodka like her mother circa 1985.  And she is fascinated by a photograph of Lady, taken by Kit Daniels.  Lady hates the photo.

In a way, Seth is at the center.  Everyone connects over Seth, who is searching for Marco.  Lady spends her writing time tweeting and stalking Seth on Twitter.  S has an affair with him.

But I read for the style, not the plot.  Lepucki’s writing is lush and sensual.

Here are the opening lines.

It was summer.  The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt? Instead I waited. It didn’t take long for the job hunters to come calling.

Beautiful detailed writing. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.  Perhaps the ending is a little weak, but the narrative is bold.

I may even read California.

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