Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a novel about nothing more complicated than identity. Told from dual perspectives, Lepucki tears readers back and forth between two opposing yet coexisting worlds. The first, the world of Lady, is the perspective of a middle-aged house wife turned writer who is in the middle of a self-maintained separation from her husband and who is constantly thinking about her ex-boyfriend of 18 years ago who was verbally abusive. She is grappling to raise both her toddler Devin and her teenaged son Seth who suffers from some type of disability that keeps him from speaking. So, in her struggles Lady puts a call out for a nanny. And who arrives but our second main character and voice, S. S is an artist who has just broken up with her boyfriend and who has decided to relive her mother’s past in an attempt to better understand her alcoholic, juvenile mother’s point of view.
Both Lady and S are constantly trying to redefine themselves through new names (Lady was once Pearl and then becomes @muffinbuffin41 on Twitter; S’s really name is Esther who is actually wearing the persona of her mother Katherine Mary), new titles (Lady is a housewife turned aspiring writer; S is an artist turned nanny), and even through the actions they partake in to become the personas they are trying to embody (Lady seeks companionship in the much younger S as well as romantic relations with the man who abandoned her for a $2,000 check; S has become an alcoholic and her mother for her character).
Woman No. 17 is twisted with heartbreak, humor, and a constant reminder of the pressures we put on ourselves to be everything that we aren’t. Lady and S are plagued by their inadequacies, by their pasts, and by the generational failure of their mothers to be good mothers. In their constant search for their own identities, Lady and S are also grappling with the identities of their deluded mothers who couldn’t take care of their children.
My one critique of the book is about Seth’s disability. Seth does show some of the hallmark signs of selective mutism (SM) in memories that Lady has from his childhood, especially because of the unstable home life that he had and the potential anxiety he was experiencing. However, in his adulthood, his lack of speech is clearly not a form of anxiety. He is not even shy, let alone suffering from social anxiety. Selective mutism is in and of itself an anxiety disorder and often does not persist past childhood, though symptoms of anxiety will follow children through their whole lives. While, Lady admits that she doesn’t know the cause of Seth’s disability, and perhaps it is just from her point of view that he has SM, I struggled with this label for him. Lady is clearly not thorough in any of her research, thought processes, or other areas in her life, so if we could chalk it up to Lady’s perspective and not Lepucki’s I’d feel more comfortable with the label. Nonetheless I feel like labeling Seth with SM in the novel portrays a false perception of the disability to readers, and SM needs a lot more coverage than it gets to begin with.
Despite this critique, a beautifully written and often tragically hilarious novel, Woman No, 17 has all of the elements of a success. While it often reads a bit slow, I would argue that’s part of the structure and purpose of the book. Life is moving inexorably slowly for the character’s living in Lepucki’s world, and so it is for the reader too.
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki was released by Hogarth in early 2018 and is available for purchase at your local bookstore.
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FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.