An Object of Beauty

One of the many reasons I read books is to learn about subjects I know nothing about.  And one of the many subjects I know nothing about is art.  I don’t understand classical art, let alone modern art, or the world of galleries and shows and museums and auctions in which people enjoy and purchase art.  So I appreciated An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin (you may know him better as an actor) on two different levels–as a well-told story, and as a kind of art world crash course.

The novel focuses on Lacey Yeager, who is beautiful, manipulative, and mercilessly ambitious, the kind of character who doesn’t engender much loyalty or affection but is absolutely fascinating to read about.  The plot follows her rise through New York City’s art world, from an intern at Sotheby’s  auction house to a bona fide gallery owner.  As in the Great Gatsby, the novel is narrated by a much more passive character, in this case an old friend of Lacey’s, an art journalist named Daniel Franks.

Martin has a gift for sharp, lovely observations–about people, as well as art.  Take this passage about Lacey’s training at Sotheby’s:

At Sotheby’s, she started to look at paintings differently.  She became an efficient computer of values.  The endless stream of pictures that passed through the auction house helped her develop a calculus of worth.  Auction records were available in the Sotheby’s library, and when a picture of note came in, she diligently searched the Art Price Index to see if it had auction history.  She factored in condition, size, and subject matter.  A Renoir of a young girl, she had witnessed, was worth more than one of an old woman.  An American western picture with five tepees was worth more than a painting with one tepee.  If a picture had been on the market recently without a sale, she knew it would be less desirable.  A deserted painting scared buyers.  Why did no one want it?  In the trade, it was known as being “burned.”  Once a picture was burned, the owner had to either drastically reduce the price or sit on it for another seven years until it faded from memory.  When Lacy began these computations, her toe crossed ground from which it is difficult to return: she started converting objects of beauty into objects of value.

Another great thing about this novel–there are pictures in it!  Lovely, full color art reproductions that appear whenever Martin discusses a specific painting.  As an art ignoramus, I found these incredibly helpful.

In front of them was Sargent’s El Jaleo.  At almost twelve feet long, it had not been imagined by Lacey to be so monumental, and she felt now that as she approached it, the picture would engulf her.  A Spanish dancer, her head thrown back, an arm reaching forward with a castanet, her other hand dramatically raising her white dress, steps hard on the floor.  Behind, a bank of guitarists strum a flamenco rhythm that is impossible for us not to think we hear, and one hombre is caught in midclap, a clap we finish in our minds.  Another is snoring.  The scene is lit from below, as though by a fire, throwing up a wild plume of shadow behind the dancer.  The frenzy and fever of the dance, the musicians, and the audience are palpable.

In Lacey, the picture aroused her deeper hunger for wild adventure that could not be fulfilled by a trip to Boston in modern times.  She longed for wanton evenings spent in a different century, her own head tiled back, flashing a castanet and a slip of leg, and sex with young men no longer among the living.

El_Jaleo

Weak Female Characters

No recommended reading today—just some random thoughts I’ve had percolating.

When I was growing up, I didn’t really relate to female characters, in books or in movies.  As a girl, I was always excited to see them, but ultimately they were never my favorites.  Damsels in distress are, of course, not particularly attractive to little girls.  (It’s funny that you often hear about superheroes being wish fulfillment for little boys, as if little boys were the only ones who dream of being special or powerful.  I think that’s just part of the human condition, even if you’ve got two X chromosomes).  But personally, I’ve never really been a fan of badass female characters either.  They always tend towards being strong, hyper-intelligent, level-headed, and more competent by far then the men around them.  Which is okay, I guess.  In an abstract sense, I’m glad they’re there.  If you can only have one woman in, say, the Avengers, I suppose it’s great that she’s skilled and competent and integral to the plot.  But all of that badass-itude can get in the way of me feeling a human connection.  As a kid I sometimes found myself identifying more with sheepish male sidekicks, simply because I could relate to the feeling of wanting things you didn’t have, and suspecting that deep down you were’t quite up to snuff.  I suppose a female character with these obvious weaknesses would seem…well, weak.  Male characters are allowed to have weaknesses because there are more of them—a whole universe full of them (see: Star Wars, which is essentially an intergalactic sausage fest with one woman in it).  A pitiful male character isn’t some comment on the male gender as a whole, in the way it might seem with a female character.

As Sophia McDougall said in her great essay I Hate Strong Female Characters (oh hey, there is a reading recommendation in here):

Is Hamlet “strong”? By the end of the play, perhaps in a sense he is, but it’s a very specific and conflicted form of strength which brings him peace only at cost of his life. Richard II, on the other hand, is not only not “strong”, he’s decidedly weak, both as a human being and a king. Yet some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, the most intricate meditations on monarchy, are placed in this weakling’s mouth. He has no strength, but he does have plenty of agency. The plot of the play is shaped around his (often extremely bad) decisions. In narrative terms, agency is far more important than “strength” – it’s what determines whether a character is truly part of the story, or a detachable accessory.  [Richard also has] very simple things, even more fundamental than “agency”.

1)      Richard has the spotlight. However weak or distressed or passive he may be, he’s the main goddamn character.

2)      Richard has huge range of other characters of his own gender around him, so that he never has to act as any kind of ambassador or representative for maleness. Even dethroned and imprisoned, he is free to be uniquely himself.

Complex female characters do exist—not many, but they’re out there—and I’m willing to accept that my failure to connect with them may be, at least in part, my problem, and not theirs.   A friend of mine once pointed out to me that I like the very worst characters in everything—the people who seemed strange or evil or socially maladjusted or hopelessly inept.  That’s a fair point.  I’m more inclined to be drawn to characters because of their weaknesses rather than their strengths, which is probably a little unusual.  For example, millions of viewers worshipped the main character of that late, great show, Veronica Mars.  I wasn’t one of them.  I liked Veronica Mars as a show–it was cleverly and intricately plotted, and had a wide and well-developed cast of characters.  But I felt little attachment to Veronica Mars herself.  Which wasn’t her (or her creator’s) fault!  She was a fairly well-rounded creation.  She was smart and virtuous and tough.  She didn’t care what other people thought of her.  She could be vulnerable or sad sometimes.  She wasn’t a perfect person–she could be sharp-edged and untrusting. But she was devoid of human frailty.  She never made a bad or selfish decision, or said something stupid, or stood stock still unable to come up with a clever retort, or felt insensible fear, or did something truly pathetic, or experienced a petty emotion of any sort.  The one time I felt close to her was when I observed her listen to records for three straight days after she and her boyfriend Duncan broke up.  And then it turned out that that was all part of an elaborate ploy to steal a baby.

Thinking about this led me to wrack my brain to see if I had any favorite female characters, and I suddenly remembered one my childhood idols: Sailor Moon, of the anime series with the same name.  Without getting into the merits or the mythology of this TV series, I will say that it was about a team of evil-fighting, magical teenage girls, each with a special planetary-based power (Sailor Mars controls fire! Sailor Jupiter, lightning! Etc.).  Sailor Moon is probably the only instance I can think of where I liked the main character of the series better than any of the supporting characters.  This is possibly because Sailor Moon had the classic weaknesses of a supporting character comic relief sidekick—she was lazy, gluttonous, clumsy, a goof-off, terrible at school, and actually kind of terrible at life–but was, at the same time, the most powerful warrior in her universe, when she could get her shit together.  If she were the only female character, her various weaknesses might have been a problem for me.  But she was surrounded by other female characters, her similarly super-powered teammates, and all of them were more serious, focused, and talented than she was (but, through a twist plot mechanics, simply not as powerful).   Sailor Moon’s weaknesses didn’t arise from her being female so much as they arose from her being herself, and they went along with the fact that she was kind, compassionate, and fearless.  You could sympathize with her for being the weak link in a group of overachievers, and at the same delight in the fact that she was, bizarrely enough, the most important one.  For my young self, Sailor Moon was an irresistible combination of the one special snowflake with the power to save the whole world (as I fantasized I could be), and a total fuck-up (as I suspected I actually was).

Sunday Short Story Recommendation

One of my favorite authors is Sherman Alexie.  He’s a master of the short story form, his writing typically features Native American characters (Alexie is of Spokane and Coeur D’alene heritage), and he’s generally hilarious.  I’m not a huge fan of his novels–they can feel a little unfocused–but his short story collections are unparalleled.  My favorite is Ten Little Indians, and one of my favorite stories from it is actually available online:  What You Pawn I Will Redeem.  It’s about a homeless Indian man who’s looking to earn a thousand dollars in a day so he can buy back his grandmother’s stolen powwow-dance regalia from a pawn shop, and it’s a great example of what a warm, witty, humane writer Alexie is.  Here’s our hero, Jackson Jackson, after a cop has just found him lying drunk and asleep on some railroad tracks.

He helped me up and led me over to his squad car. He put me in the back. “You throw up in there and you’re cleaning it up,” he said.

“That’s fair.”

He walked around the car and sat in the driver’s seat. “I’m taking you over to detox,” he said.

“No, man, that place is awful,” I said. “It’s full of drunk Indians.”

We laughed. He drove away from the docks.

“I don’t know how you guys do it,” he said.

“What guys?” I asked.

“You Indians. How the hell do you laugh so much? I just picked your ass off the railroad tracks, and you’re making jokes. Why the hell do you do that?”

“The two funniest tribes I’ve ever been around are Indians and Jews, so I guess that says something about the inherent humor of genocide.”

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Every American in the so-called Millennial Generation can tell you the secret to happiness: follow your passion.  On the surface, this sounds almost laughably obvious.  Why shouldn’t you spend your one and only life doing what you’re most passionate about?  There’s also a sense of privilege in this mindset.  This is what we envision when we imagine a first world life—children who can pursue anything that catches their fancy (I guess you’ve just really got to hope that someone in this utopia has a passion for water filtration).  For a long time I held this mentality even though my parents were immigrants who desperately wanted me to be an electrical engineer.  But as an adult, I can see how the whole passion mindset introduces a whole new set of problems.  What if you don’t have a clear cut passion?  What if you have one but it’s not possible to make a living from it?  Or it’s possible, but you’re just not good enough to make a living from it, no matter how passionate you are?  Or maybe the worst of all—what if you have a passion, you pursue it, you’re wildly successful—and you’re somehow still not happy?

Cal Newport’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You is a refutation of the “follow your passion” theory of happiness.  Newport’s counter-theory, which is a little less whimsical but struck a cord with me nonetheless, is that you’ll love what you do–whatever it is–once you’re actually good at it.  If the skill you develop is rare and valuable (whether it’s computer programming or repairing plumbing), and you eventually become “so good they can’t ignore you”–you will be rewarded with not just financial rewards, but more crucially, more control and autonomy over your work life.  (People with rare and valuable skills are able to choose their hours far more frequently than people with commonplace skills).  Getting good at something takes a great deal of focus and deliberate practice, hence why the rewards for it tend to be so high.  (Whichever philosophy of happiness you could ascribe to, the commonality is that nothing comes easy).

I enjoyed this book (although like most books that revolve around a single, easily summarized thesis, it goes on a bit too long).  I’m not saying that everyone must adopt this as their mindset, but it spoke to me, and lately I’ve been striving to implement some of its ideas in my own life.  If I were to name my passion, I would say that I like to write (although sometimes I wonder how true this is considering the lengths that I go to to avoid writing).  I’ve always known that writing is neither a rare nor valuable skill, and therefore it’s very difficult to make a living from it.  For a long time, the passion mindset actually prevented me from writing much.  I had it in my head that unless I could devote all of my time and energy to writing, and become financially successful as a result of it, I would be a failure.  (Because inherent to the passion theory of happiness is the idea that your passion must be the thing that pays your rent).  My actual job was something I did not feel passionate about, and that I viewed as a millstone around my neck, an obstacle to my happiness.  I’m starting to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Can’t my job be something I taken pride it?  Why not focus on getting better at it, which would undoubtedly increase my enjoyment of it, and eventually my control over my working life?  (Newport calls this the “craftsman mindset”–focus on what you can offer the world, rather than what the world can or should offer you).  Can’t writing just be another part of my life–not the way I make a living, not an all-consuming passion, but just something that I do?

I digress.  If you’re interested in Newport’s much more focused take on this topic, check out his book, or his blog, Study Hacks.

Starting Out the Evening

Starting Out the Evening is a novel by Brian Morton, published in 1998.  It won a number of awards when it was published, earned great reviews from the major critics (“Nothing less than a triumph”–The New York Times Book Review), and was adapted into a movie starring Frank Langella.  Yet it’s not exactly a well-known novel.  (Is it?  Have you heard of it?  I’m kind of hoping that I’m mistaken).  I’m not exactly sure what makes some well-regarded novels household names, while others seem destined for obscurity.  Ironically enough, that’s the basic scenario of Starting Out the Evening.  The subject is Leonard Schiller, a seventy-year-old author.  He has published four books over the course of his career, and while he’s a respected novelist, he’s also sort of a second-string literary talent–his work has been out of print for decades.  Nearing the end of his life, he is approached by a young graduate student named Heather Wolfe, who adores his first two novels and wants to write her master’s thesis on him.  Leonard hopes this will revive interest in his novels, and is also flattered to have the attention of a young and attractive woman.  But this is not a May-December romance.  Their relationship is more complicated than that.  Leonard may be attracted to Heather, but he’s also a little terrified of her, the way she threatens his dignity and makes him painfully aware of how old he is.  Heather is entranced by Leonard as a writer, but finds being in his physical presence inevitably disappointing.  “When she read his work, it as as if he poured his soul directly into hers, and they mixed.  Now there were bodies in the way.”

Also in the mix is Ariel, Leonard’s thirty-nine-year-old daughter, who does not read novels at all and worships Oprah, but is still as interesting and insightful as anyone else in the novel; and Casey, Ariel’s activist boyfriend (he’s a minor character, but he provides one of my very favorite moments).  This is a beautiful, well-written, complicated book, that tackles big subject like old age and mortality and the meaning of literature, yet still manages to be a fast-paced and unpretentious read.  I think you know if this sort of story appeals to you, and I hope you will seek it out if it does.  As I mentioned, you’ll find plenty of glowing reviews online.

I’d like to point out here that my favorite thing about this book is what it has to say about the experience of being a reader. Heather views Leonard’s first two novels as works of genius; reading them was a formative event in her life.  In her thesis, she writes, “They were completely personal, yet completely in the American grain: they were books about people breaking away from their fates, making their own lives.  They were books about freedom.”  She’s far less effusive about his last two novels, which she refers to in her thesis as “honorable failures.”  In discussing his third novel, which is an ensemble piece about the experience of living through the 1960s, she writes: “Schiller had deprived himself of his greatest resource: his skill at creating central characters who are willing to pay any price or break any bond in order to claim their freedom.”

Contrast this with Casey, who describes reading Leonard’s first book as follows:  “He’d finished it in one sitting–it was pretty light–and getting up he’d tossed it on the table and thought, Four people bothering each other.  Who cares?”  Late in the novel, in an idle moment, Casey picks up Leonard’s third novel.  “It was about the alarms and disorders of the 1960s.  He read the first forty-five pages, and found it much more interesting than the one he’d read years ago.  That other one, his first or second, was a trite little book about a couple trying to deal with their personal problems during a year in Paris.  This later book was messier, but it took on larger subjects; it had more gusts.  He read until he felt tired; then he put it back on Ariel’s bookcase, intending to return to it another day.”

I loved this, this little reminder that when it comes to reading, you bring so much of yourself into the experience.  Accordingly, your mileage may vary.

A Short Story for Wednesday

A Primer For the Punctuation of Heart Disease by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Length: 5 pages

Excerpt:

Familial communication always has to do with failures to communicate.  It is common that in the course of a conversation one of the participants will not hear something that the other has said.  It is also quite common that one of the participants will not understand what the other has said.  Somewhat less common is one participant’s saying something whose words the other understands completely but whose meaning is not understood at all.  This can happen with very simple sentences, like “I hope that you never love anyone as much as I love you.”

Forgotbusters

Like pretty much everybody with a pulse, I love movies.  Unlike everybody else, I think I might like reading movie reviews and criticism even more than I like the actual experience of movie-watching.  Since Roger Ebert passed away, my go-to review site has been The Dissolve.  In addition to thoughtful reviews, the website also has a special feature called Forgotbusters, which, in its own words, “re-examines movies that were among the top 25 grossing films the year of their release, but have receded culturally, in order to explore what originally attracted audiences to them, and why they failed to endure.”  So if you’ve ever contemplated why Avatar broke every box office record but is still no one’s favorite movie, or wondered if anyone else remembers Congo, that animatronic gorilla movie from the 1990s–Forgotbusters has, and does, and is the website for you!

Thanksgiving in Mongolia

I’ve been wanting to talk about this New Yorker essay by Ariel Levy, Thanksgiving in Mongolia, since I started this blog (admittedly, not such a long time ago).  More accurately, I’ve been wanting to talk about it since I first read it.  That must have been six months ago.  I read it in the middle of a slow day at work and ended up crying in my office.  Since then I’ve reread it about a dozen times, and to some extent have teared up every time.  And I’d like to be clear–I don’t cry very often.  It’s the story of a miscarriage the writer suffered while traveling in Mongolia, not a topic that I’d ordinarily be drawn to, or one that would ordinarily jerk my tears.  But this is a very special piece of writing (quite deservedly, it won the National Magazine Award in essay writing in 2014). I was going to find some way to work it into a Top Five list (Top Five Tear-Jerkers?  Top Five Personal Traumas?  Top Five Horrible Things That Can Happen To You In Mongolia?) but when I thought about how much this essay means to me I knew I couldn’t embed it in a listicle.  I’ve tried more than once to pinpoint why it has such an impact on me.  It starts with Levy’s initial ambivalence towards motherhood.  She describes her adventures as a journalist and explorer, her love affair with travel, and her fear that a child might put an end to that life with refreshing honesty.

I didn’t like childhood, and I was afraid that I’d have a child who didn’t, either. I was afraid I would be an awful mother. And I was afraid of being grounded, sessile—stuck in one spot for eighteen years of oboe lessons and math homework that I couldn’t finish the first time around.

Ultimately she and her partner decide to take the plunge and have a baby when, “The idea bloomed in my head that being governed by something other than my own wishes and wanderlust might be a pleasure, a release.”  Before giving birth, Levy decides to engage in one last bout of wanderlust.

My doctor told me that it was fine to fly up until the third trimester, so when I was five months pregnant I decided to take one last big trip. It would be at least a year, maybe two, before I’d be able to leave home for weeks on end and feel the elation of a new place revealing itself. (It’s like having a new lover—even the parts you aren’t crazy about have the crackling fascination of the unfamiliar.)Just before Thanksgiving, I went to Mongolia.

People were alarmed when I told them where I was going, but I was pleased with myself. I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself. And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”

But in Mongolia the situation turns ominous as a slight pain in Levy’s abdomen grows worse and worse.  She ends up giving birth in the bathroom of her hotel room, and what follows is one of the saddest things I have ever read:

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.”

But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell. He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

In my hand, his skin started to turn a soft shade of purple. I bled my way across the room to my phone and dialed the number for Cox’s doctor. I told the voice that answered that I had given birth in the Blue Sky Hotel and that I had been pregnant for nineteen weeks. The voice said that the baby would not live. “He’s alive now,” I said, looking at the person in my left hand. The voice said that he understood, but that it wouldn’t last, and that he would send an ambulance for us right away. I told him that if there was no chance the baby would make it I might as well take a cab. He said that that was not a good idea. Before I put down my phone, I took a picture of my son. I worried that if I didn’t I would never believe he had existed.

I worry that by extracting quotes like this, I”m actually robbing the essay of its power.  So much of its magic is its perfect and painstakingly built structure.  I can’t replicate her how powerful it is, bearing witness to Levy’s journey from a woman ambivalent towards motherhood to this final, heartbreaking conclusion:

But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone. Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.

Please read it.

God’s Foot Soldiers

I just finished reading God’s Harvard: A Christian College on a Mission to Save America, by Hanna Rosin.  It’s a detailed look at Patrick Henry College, a small school about forty minutes outside of Washington D.C. that was founded to groom Christian Fundamentalist youth (most of them home schooled) for futures in politics and the media.  The students there as driven and ambitious as any Ivy League kid, and captivated by what they see as their mission to save an ungodly nation from itself.  I’m as liberal and godless as, well, Hanna Rosin, but I’m fascinated by evangelicals, and I appreciate that Rosin doesn’t demonize these kids or their college but instead tries to provide a complete view of what their lives are like, and how they succeed (and sometimes don’t succeed) at balancing their beliefs with the pervading culture of the secular world.  Some aspects of Patrick Henry College struck me as quite alien–the VIctorian-era courting rituals, the shaming of girls who try to “stumble” boys by showing too much cleavage, the elaborate Creationist biology courses.  Other parts were strangely familiar to me.  The unquestioning belief these kids have in the values they grew up with, their fervor for the Republican party, their conviction that they and they alone could change the world–all of these things reminded me that, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, when you’re young you’re just so certain about everything.  (This quality is less endearing if you retain it into old age).

If the subject matter interests you but you don’t necessarily want to read an entire book about it, you’re in luck–this book began life as a New Yorker article entitled God and Country.  Check it out!

And When She Was Good

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.