Woman No. 17 by Eden Lepucki

A wealthy blonde from the Hollywood Hills (adjacent) with a toddler to watch and a tell-all memoir to write. A (too) doting second husband who has been banished to his famous-photographer sister’s for a trial separation, but will do anything to return. A live-in nanny who isn’t quite who she says she is.

You get where this is going.

On the surface, Edan Lepucki’s third novel, Woman No. 17, is full of these familiar tropes. But if you dismiss taking a gander because you’ve “read all that before,” you’d be making a mistake. There’s some meat on this bone — trust me.

At first glance, Lady Daniels is what one might expect from a lady-who-lunches L.A. mom on the hunt for full-time sitter. She’s slimmish, attractive (though losing her youthful glow now that she is past 40, to her daily disappointment), and flawlessly confident. After her essay in Real Simple about the strains of parenting a mute child went viral, she landed a lucrative book contract to spill more about the experience.

But what becomes immediately apparent is that Lady isn’t as coiffed as she appears to be — or loose-lipped. Instead, she’s hiding not just one secret beneath her cool facade, but a mountain of them, and the deceit and lack of control is slowly breaking her apart. Worse yet, her family is none the wiser.

Lady’s not the only one in those mini-mansion-studded hills pulling a fast one. Enter Esther, or S — the new nanny. When the makeup-less 22-year-old shows up at Lady’s door for an interview, S immediately hits it off with 2-year-old Devin, Lady’s child during her second marriage. As if shlubbiness is somehow a measure of trustworthiness, Lady hires S on the spot, without even a reference check.

This, of course, is where things get slightly more complicated — and interesting.

S, it turns out, is an artist — and not just any artist, but an impersonator. Her latest performance project involves getting wasted and secretly pretending to be her alcoholic mother when she was S’s age (and also a nanny) to see what comes of it. “It was like a makeover in reverse: After and Before.”

Needless to say, a lot comes of it.

For one, S’s boozy-turned-floozy behavior starts to attraction attention. Namely: Seth, Lady’s gangly but handsome 18-year-old son from her first marriage. Though Seth can’t speak, he has figured out plenty of ways to express what he’s feeling, especially when it comes to his mother’s infuriatingly overprotective behavior and a new interest in finding out who this S girl really is.

Despite the hint of deceit and scent of illicit canoodling in the air, Lepucki doesn’t appear to be interested in writing a trashy noir cum sly bodice-ripper, though some of the sexy scenes do get a pinch, well, rough. Pretty early on, it’s clear that she’s experimenting with exploring something deeper. Mainly: what it means to be a needy, vulnerable, passionate, discarded lover, wife, daughter and mother.

Woman No. 17 is structured like a classic she-said, she-said. In odd-numbered chapters, we hear about events from Lady’s perspective — and the scoop ain’t pretty. There’s the backstory involving her long-standing estrangement from her mother. The ongoing feud with her opinionated sister-in-law, Kit, who snapped the revealing photo of Lady titled “Woman No. 17.” And all the gritty details of her crash-course first marriage to Seth’s father, Marco — a ne’er-do-well whom she nonetheless loved, but who disappeared before Seth turned 2.

In even chapters, it’s back to S, who simultaneously becomes progressively closer to Seth and his illusive feelings — including a growing obsession with finding his birth father — and slides into a bizarre friendship with Lady while delving deeper into her art project. The older woman is desperately in need of a confidante, and if that gal pal happens to be 20 years younger, a closeted boozehound, and sleeping with her son unbeknownst to her … well, what other options does Lady have?

The effect of reading in this back-and-forth manner is that it’s impossible not to compare leading ladies and side with one character over the other. In this case, our hearts go out to Lady. Sure, she’s a self-pitying narcissist — the worst kind. She spends most of her life making harebrained decisions and pushing away those who love her most, especially her chump of a second husband, Karl (So nice! So forgiving!). His sole purpose in the book seems to be to prove how much of a whack job Lady can be.

But who cares! And here’s where Lepucki’s got our number — and why the novel isn’t just a fluff piece. By waiting until just the right moment to explain what happened in Lady’s tortured past to make her behave so maniacally toward her husband and children, Lepucki banks on the fact that the truth will make it darn near impossible for readers not to empathize with the poor woman — and she’s right. When the big reveal occurs, it’s a game changer.

Besides, here’s the honest truth: As both S and Lady demonstrate in their own ways, it’s hard to be a child, even harder to be a parent and make the “right” decisions — especially when the role models you’ve been given weren’t there for you when they should’ve been. The fallout can be devastating. As Lady so expertly puts it: “It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.”

While Woman No. 17 does posses all the trappings of a frothy page-turner — stormy arguments, showy melodrama, and (oops!) an affair, there are some quiet, serious moments, too. It’s the intersection between the two that makes this read both scintillating and thought-provoking.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (May 10, 2017)

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