Edan Lepucki’s characters don’t know why they do half the things they do. Even when circumstances align in their favor, they manage to muck it up. No bad situation is so grave that it can’t be worsened by poor judgment and impulsive behavior. Lepucki’s new novel, Woman No. 17, features two women who can’t get out of their own way. Lady Daniels has a beautiful home (“Hollywood Hills-adjacent”), an irrepressible toddler named Devin, and a contract to write a memoir about raising a mute son, Seth, who is now eighteen. To carve out time for writing, she hires a nanny to care for Devin: “S” is a recent Berkeley grad with a semi-harmless art habit who needs a change of scenery.
This mutually beneficial arrangement appears ideal, but shadows quickly emerge. Lady has separated from her husband on grounds that to readers will seem insufficient, and she fails to disguise a preference for her elder son. S pines for her college boyfriend, a pretentious artist who broke up with her because, in his words, “you’re not really an artist.” Soon thereafter S gets run out of Berkeley when her performance piece (a faux beautification campaign called “Give Us Your Tevas”) was interpreted by locals as an attack on their dress habits.
Lepucki alternates between the two narrators, giving equal time for Lady and S to describe their own self-inflicted crises. Initially both appear to be admirable, boot-strappy women who know how to rebound from misfortune. They each suffered through unsavory childhoods at the hands of narcissistic mothers who, though different (Lady’s mother is vain and manipulative, S’s drunk and detached), inflict similar damage. Lepucki limits the reader’s sympathy for both of her protagonists, however, by depicting their elaborate rationalizations. They violate the privacy of others but explode when their own confidences are broken. They kiss the wrong guys and cover their tracks poorly. They drink too much, leave doors open. These are women who shouldn’t own pets.
Seth becomes the focus of much of the action. He wants to know his father’s identity and begins to lose patience with Lady’s temporizing. He sees S as an ally; what S sees in him takes on troubling dimensions. For Lady and S, he remains enigmatic, his “selective mutism” an outward sign of inner mystery. The women expend so much energy trying to decipher his messages that they forget he’s a teenager still struggling to find his way. He resents being reduced to his disability, a test of others’ compassion. “I’m not a metaphor,” he texts to S.
Woman No. 17 is a novel about motherhood, an impossible game to win: “All parents fail their kids,” one character remarks, and Lepucki sets about proving the comment right. Lady can’t understand why Seth rebels against her, shutting her out. S tries to explain: “All teenagers hate their moms.” Lady remembers her frustrations, “the times I couldn’t understand what Seth wanted and yelled at him or left the room before I did something worse.” But she recalls the unique rewards of raising him, as well. As a child, Seth “would roll into a ball under the covers and press his spine against my stomach, the joey to my kangaroo, and then he’d clap three times very quickly, which meant something like I’m comfortable, but also, I love you, but also, The dark is scary but not under the covers, but also, I’m afraid of death but not right now.”
S flourishes as a back-up mommy during work hours, but she won’t make the au pair hall of fame. Her tenure with Devin serves as a “how to” manual for losing your nanny gig: flirt with the eighteen-year-old brother, stack empty vodka bottles in the recycling, take the side of the separated spouse in an argument. The twist, as she reveals early, is that her entire persona—drab clothes, no make-up, budding alcoholism—is part of an art project: “I would try to become my mother.” Taking care of a rowdy two-year-old while aping the identity of an emotionally distant addict, all in the name of an art with no defined output—what could go wrong?
The parallel stories of Lady and S speeding toward disaster keep the pages turning, but the primary pleasure of Woman No. 17 comes from Lepucki’s wit. Feeling defensive around her sister-in-law, a famous photographer, Lady observes that Kit’s “thin white dress resembled an enormous napkin, except for the padded white belt, which looked like two maxi pads stitched end to end.” S’s best lines tend to be acerbic—“My mom is powerless to her bad taste. It’s a miracle my father wasn’t a creep who lives on a houseboat with his pet ferret”—but she’s also capable of pure comedy: “A classic omelet looks like a pair of Meryl Streep’s underwear and tastes like eating air.” This novel, coming on the heels of the dystopian California (2014), suggests that Lepucki is an author with a diverse palate and talent to burn.
Sean Kinch grew up in Austin and attended Stanford. He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. He now teaches in Nashville.