I love literary fiction, but when I’m in the mood for something more densely plotted, I turn to genre fiction, usually crime fiction or sci-fi. (It’s not that a work of literary fiction can’t be plotty, but it’s not guaranteed to be so in the same way that a detective novel is). I just finished reading Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good. Although Lippman is best known as the author of a whole series of detective novels starring reporter-turned-private investigator Tess Monaghan, this is a stand-alone novel (and also the first Lippman novel I’ve ever read). I enjoyed it thoroughly, finishing it over the course of a couple of days, and it’s made me eager to check out the rest of Lippman’s work. Our heroine is Heloise, a thirty-something madam running a successful escort service outside of Washington D.C. But she’s also a single mother, trying to preserve a veneer of suburban respectability for the sake of her son, deal with the boy’s father (her former pimp, now in prison), and cope with various challenges relating to her business. Running through the book is a parallel narrative, starring Helen (a young Heloise) and detailing the rough childhood and adolescence that brought her to this point. Both the past and present day narratives are equally interesting. I was particularly impressed by the fact that while the story of Helen’s upbringing is tragic and unfair, the author makes it quite clear that Helen ultimately made her own choices. Helen/Heloise is a very well drawn character. She’s brilliant and has keen business instincts, but is prone to trusting the wrong people, and plagued by insecurities about her lack of a formal education. One of the great pleasures of the novel was hearing about the lengths Heloise goes to keep the true nature of her business under wraps (her cover is that she runs a lobbying firm called the Women’s Full Employment Network—no one has ever asked her to elaborate on that). Lippman does a fairly good job with the supporting cast—although none of them are half as vivid as Heloise, I did enjoy Heloise’s conversations with Val, her former pimp whom she occasionally visits in prison. He’s clearly a monster, but there’s a complexity to his relationship with Heloise, and when he discusses his love of reading Civil War books with her you can almost imagine that in another world they could have been a functional couple.
I also liked that the book’s overall take on prostitution is far from clear cut. As one of Heloise’s call girls says, “I feel…as if I have this really valuable commodity—myself—and yet I’m not supposed to do anything with it…The way things work, I’m allowed to trade it to only one man, and then it’s totally on his terms, you know?” Heloise herself speculates that men made prostitution illegal because very few of them can actually profit from it. As a madam, she naturally believes that she’s providing a valuable service to men and giving women a chance to make some good money. And yet, after reading her back story you get the sense that this is not the life she would have chosen for herself, which undermines that sense of empowerment.
My only complaint about And When She Was Good concerns the ending, which tied up everything a little too neatly. It seemed as if all of Heloise’s mounting problems were solved in a couple dozen pages. I wouldn’t have minded an ending with a few more loose ends and ambiguities. But then again, that’s the nature of the crime/thriller genre—the ending is supposed to be a solution to all of the various dramas and mysteries that have been put into play. I guess what I wanted was a more literary ending, something that arose more naturally from the character instead of one that was purely in service of the plot. But I suppose that’s silly given that plot was why I sought out this novel in the first place.