Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, became a pre-order sensation in large part due to the turmoil between Amazon and Hachette Book Group, in which the two companies couldn’t agree on a royalty-sharing agreement. Stephen Colbert highlighted the dispute on his show by prominently featuring the then yet-to-be-released California, and calling on his viewers to pre-order Lepucki’s debut from Hachette from anywhere but Amazon. California debuted in the third slot on The New York Times Best Seller list upon its release in July 2014.
California took place in a post-apocalyptic California, in which a young couple, Frida Ellis and Calvin Friedman, leave a destructed Los Angeles in favor of a dilapidated home in Northern California. The novel centered around community, and making the “right” choices as a burgeoning family in a torn-apart world. While some could argue that California didn’t earn its notoriety on its merits alone, it was a solid, often gripping, debut with a highly entertaining twist.
Now, almost three years later, Lepucki is back with her sophomore novel, Woman No. 17. Like California, it is a page-turner set in California. Only this time, its set in the very much still intact Los Angeles area.
Our first person narrator is Lady Daniels, a recently separated mother of two, who sold a memoir based off a magazine article about her oldest son, Seth, an 18-year who, despite not having a diagnosed disorder, has never spoken a word. He chooses to communicate through sign language, his tablet, and, of course, Twitter, showing off his consummate insight without ever opening his mouth.
Because Lady Daniels has a second child, a rambunctious toddler named Devin, she decides to hire a nanny to take watch over him while she writes her book. In comes Esther Shapiro, who goes by the moniker S Fowler.
At the start of the novel, Lady hires Esther, but there’s much we don’t know about her. The narration switches between Lady and Esther, and it becomes apparent that these two women of different generations have more in common than we might have initially thought.
Both women are manipulators, who lie just as easily as they tell the truth, but there’s two things that they cannot hide from one another: The fact that they both had terrible maternal figures, and they both, for different reasons of course, have an undying fascination with Seth.
S is also an artist, and her specialty is impersonations. Her own mother, a raging alcoholic, happened to be a nanny, so it makes sense that given her artistic pursuits, S has set herself up in her grandest, and perhaps most reckless work of art of her young life — impersonating her mother. Her antics attract the attention of Seth, which poses problems for the dynamic between Lady and Esther.
Now, despite the premise, the novel never goes quite as far down this rabbit hole as you might imagine. Woman No. 17 is more concerned with the concept of motherhood, love, and companionship amongst women.
When reading Woman No. 17, it’s hard not to side with either Lady or Esther, as each of their narratives are convincing in different ways. But just when you think you have chosen sides, the next chapter will throw you for a loop, and make you feel as if you were wrong for favoring the other leading lady. It’s a graceful back and forth that plays with your emotions. There are times where you may confuse the two of them, as at some points, they are presented as two sides of the same coin.
Like California, there’s a sizable twist near the end of Woman No. 17 that will make you view the self-involved nature of these two women differently. At times you will think that both of them are (borderline) awful, but nothing can really prepare you for the truth. Woman No. 17 does a remarkable job of toying with your emotions, pushing and pulling you along the way, before finally revealing why these two women interact and think in the curious way that they do.
With witty dialogue, distinctive and enthralling narration from both of our central characters, and keen insight into the minds of mothers and daughters, Woman No. 17 is a scintillating literary novel masked as a page-turner.
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