Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
High in the Hollywood Hills, writer Lady Daniels has decided to take a break from her husband. Left alone with her children, she’s going to need a hand taking care of her young son if she’s ever going to finish her memoir. In response to a Craigslist ad, S arrives, a magnetic young artist who will live in the secluded guest house out back, care for Lady’s toddler, Devin, and keep a watchful eye on her older, teenage son, Seth. S performs her day job beautifully, quickly drawing the entire family into her orbit, and becoming a confidante for Lady.
But in the heat of the summer, S’s connection to Lady’s older son takes a disturbing, and possibly destructive, turn. And as Lady and S move closer to one another, the glossy veneer of Lady’s privileged life begins to crack, threatening to expose old secrets that she has been keeping from her family. Meanwhile, S is protecting secrets of her own, about her real motivation for taking the job. S and Lady are both playing a careful game, and every move they make endangers the things they hold most dear.
Darkly comic, twisty and tense, this mesmerizing new novel defies expectation and proves Edan Lepucki to be one of the most talented and exciting voices of her generation.
Lepucki’s sophomore novel, Woman No. 17, is a masterful exploration of motherhood, the bonds between women, and art—especially the extent to which art imitates life, and the extent to which art is just performance.
Woman No. 17 is described as a “sinister, sexy noir” but I’m not sure that I agree. But it is real. It’s about the lives of two women, each who are running from their mothers, but each becoming them.
Lady, separated from her husband, is trying to write a memoir about her son, Seth. Seth is 18 and from a previous relationship. He doesn’t speak. To make time for writing, Lady decides to hire a live-in Nanny to take care of her toddler, Devin.
Enter S Fowler. S is a twenty-something artist looking for her next project. She decides that this time, she is going to become her mother. She changes her name from Esther Shapiro to S Fowler, and adopts a boozy, devil-may-care persona.
S moves into the guest house and drinks herself to oblivion every night. Soon, S become Lady’s confidante. And soon, S becomes involved with Seth.
Lady and S hold their secrets close to their chest, and weave webs of lies to protect themselves. Neither knows what they really want. They are both self-destructive and incredibly self-involved.
I loved that about this book. Here we have two women, both unapologetically unlikable and extremely messed up. It’s a compelling story about women’s lives that isn’t seen through rose-coloured glasses. Instead we see the complexity that lies in each of their minds and pasts. Not only so, but every secondary character is fully fleshed out and complex—like Seth, Karl, Marco, and Kit.
Woman No. 17 is so incredibly well written. I couldn’t put it down. I had to watch as each thread comes undone, waiting for the inevitable moment when everything goes to shit.
When it does, it doesn’t disappoint.
This story is not one that I’ll soon forget. I haven’t picked up Lepucki’s California yet, but now I certainly will be. She’s one to look out for.
Beth is the founder and editor of Fuelled by Fiction. She is a twenty-something east coast Canadian girl who loves writing about books and feminism.