“I’d been beautiful. The past tense was like a shove to the chest.”
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki was not quite what I expected. I was thinking it would be a simple Women’s Fiction read, something to pass the time on a beach. Instead I got fully developed, messy characters that I could relate to. I underlined like mad, I cringed, I ached… they are awkward and naive but strong and wise too, does that make sense? Do any of us make sense? Lady is a writer, a blocked one at that, separated from her fantastic husband Karl and she knows that makes her seem crazy. Who ‘takes a break’ from such a wonderful catch? Her past is always alive inside of her with her teenage son Seth, a mute that she shares secret ‘signing’ with. It’s their thing, at times it seems she feels Seth is her son and toddler Devin is more Karl’s. Devin is untouched by difficulties, he is wonderful and everything perfect. As the reader travels back to Lady’s time with Seth’s irresistible, feckless father Marco it is much like a trip through the painful romantic hope of youth. There is the blindness, the us against them (mainly Lady’s mother who knows, as age gives us that cruel insight, that Marco is not fit to be a father or a husband). Marco is that guy a young woman is hungry for, one that can set her world afire when it’s just the two of them and there are no demands on him, he is perfect when he is the center of a woman’s life but isn’t the sort of man that can contribute nor father his offspring. Crushing reality washes over the lovers and Lady finds herself abandoned, she becomes a single mother because someone has to be the adult and there is no going back to her mother, making room for fate to step in one day through Karl.
Karl is successful and wealthy with a twin sister Kit, a famous photographer who takes a series of photographs about ‘common’ women that creates a division between Kit and Lady. The relationship is complicated, as so many between women are but with a photograph of Lady, so much is said about her life before Karl and why there is resentment she feels towards Kit. Devin is the perfect child, where Seth is ‘flawed’ and I loved Seth’s character. Devin’s curiosity about how his big half-brother speaks (with his hands) is sweet. It’s about time an author writes about someone who is ‘different’ and yet has the normal desires and urges, who isn’t just a pity caricature of a real boy. Seth is simmering, he has been in the dark so long about his real father that there is a distance growing between he and Lady. Any mother with a child with any sort of disability can understand the consuming, sometimes suffocating mothering that is given to said child. A mother gets used to protecting, sometimes denying the son/daughter a chance to grow, to stand on their own and take the hard knocks life gives us all. It’s done out of love, but it also limits. It is a point of contention between Karl and Lady, as Karl seems to be interfering. Lady is blind to her son’s sexuality, it’s too easy to think because a person can’t communicate in the same way as others that they don’t feel nor need the same things. It’s dismissive, it’s infuriating but it happens all the time. Karl has always been hers, he was there through the rough times, before Karl, it was just mother and son trying to survive. I even felt, more than any lover, the closest thing to a soulmate she has is her eldest. It’s a familiar pain reading about Seth when he was young and his ‘difference’ was becoming evident the older he got. It’s a mass of conflicting emotions a parent feels, I know this too well, and Edan Lepucki approached the subject beautifully. I love this line. “There was a time when everything mattered to me, when life was grave, when I required that gravity to survive.” It is such a strong statement but what follows is the gut punch for any parent.
“That visit to the pediatrician was where my memoir should have begun, for it was the first time an expert expressed concern, thus turning Seth into a specimen.” It feels that way, it guts a parent to see their child treated as a specimen, examined for what’s ‘wrong’ so to speak. There is an innate protective viciousness that is born and is never quite put to rest, it is this animal that protects the child for life. It is also why it feels the world is out to get your baby. Most of us hate anyone pointing out our differences, but it’s brutally cruel when someone does it to your child (professionally or not). Can we blame Lady for erasing Seth’s father? “Seth never cried over his dad’s subtle gesture of neglect, and neither did I.”
And yet, this isn’t a sad story to make you pity Seth, he is a vibrantly, hungry young man that doesn’t need your pity! When S enters the scene, she may seem to be the catalyst but things were already bubbling below. S is such a fun, character- artistic and by wanting to create something meaningful after a failed attempt at another project she has decided to wear her mother as a coat. She will shed her former self (Esther Shapiro, the fool that loved a ‘better’ artist, Everett) and become more “HappyKathy”. She is eccentric and darling in her crazy projects. I think about her time in college surrounded by art students (I relate too well, my children are both studying the arts in college as I write this) and the attempts to distance themselves from the cookie cutter world. She’s so lost and yet burning with an intensity after-all, who comes up with the idea to be haunted by their living mother? “My mom blurts everything out.” S is going to approach life as her mom, and this experiment is going to involve Lady and her entire family, unbeknownst to her. As she becomes a nanny for Lady, Seth and S take an interest in one another. They are all going to become entangled in each other, and when everything settles nothing will look the same.
This is a long winded review, I understand that, but the scope of this novel is so rich that I can’t even scratch the surface of what I felt and thought. I laughed, I blushed for the painful awkward moments (Lady and S are both awkward in their youth), I ached with the love and mistakes, and I understood the resentment Lady felt towards Kit. No one likes to be dismissed, no one enjoys being seen in messy detail (at their slum I guess you could say) particularly by someone whose life seems to have never verged in your own territory of poverty or struggle. That S is taking on her mother’s messy persona makes me laugh a bit, because it’s the same thing Lady is distancing herself from in the intimate photograph Kit took. Even when S’s parents came for her, I was laughing because S is such a complex young woman, that for her parents this isn’t so outside the norm. I read this a while ago and it’s still simmering inside of me. Woman No. 17 is a gorgeous novel. It won’t be published until May 2017. I could still go on about every character, but this review is becoming a novel. Add this to the top of your 2017 reading list now. I apologize for the long winded review, but the story affected me for personal reasons and not many books can do that.
Publication Date: May 9, 2017