Rachie3879’s #CBR5 Review #23: And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman


And When She Was Good tells the tale of Helen “Heloise” Lewis, an aloof single mother of a bright and engaging 12-year-old boy in the suburbs of Baltimore. Naturally as with all mystery novel subjects, Heloise has a secret: though she devotes quite a lot of her time at soccer games and PTA meetings, she earns her living as a madam to local politicians and wealthy businessmen. Ostensibly, Heloise’s business WFEN is a lobbying firm, striving for income parity for women everywhere. Her lobbying is just a front to avoid the unwanted attention of the IRS. She has a small staff of girls who keep her quite comfortably and for the most part she is content with the status quo.

Then a recently-busted madam in a neighboring county is murdered and Heloise has to question whether it’s merely a coincidence. Is her past as a whore for convicted murderer Val Deluca coming back to haunt her? Has he finally figured out that Heloise (Helen back then) was the one directing the police to the evidence that would ensure his conviction?

I wanted to finish the paragraph above with something like ‘Heloise races to discover the secrets around the murder and create a new identity for herself…” I realized that it wouldn’t really be an accurate statement; this novel doesn’t race toward anything. That isn’t to say it’s not good – I actually did enjoy it – it’s just that it takes its time reaching its conclusion and nothing is rushed until the final few pages. Intermixed with Heloise’s struggles in the present time are flashbacks to Helen’s adolescence with her emotionally and physically abusive father Hector, her cowering mother Beth who wouldn’t make any effort to protect her, and her first inappropriate relationship with Billy, the drug-addled stepson of Helen’s first boss. We discover how she came to leave her home in Pennsylvania and end up a pregnant whore in Maryland desperate to escape the life with which she’d allowed herself to be stuck.

Heloise/Helen’s story is definitely an interesting one. I did not find it very easy to empathize with her. The experiences Lippman details are so foreign to me (knock on wood) that it’s not something I can really fathom. This may be why I was left a little cold by Helen. It’s also mentioned over and over how distanced she keeps herself from others in her life. She must build up walls to keep her family life from crossing over with her professional one; couple that with my lack of anything similar in my background and it’s harder for me to really get her.  Not just get her – I didn’t like her. I wanted her to succeed, because her son is quite an endearing little guy, but I didn’t really like her.

Heloise largest obstacle in this novel is Val, her one-time pimp and the father of her child Scott, of whom Val knows nothing. We learn throughout the novel that Val has helped Heloise start her escort service and gets a kick-back each month for doing so. The moments where she’s talking through the glass at the prison to Val are the most genuine ones we see of Helen. Val, though he is probably one of the worst things that ever happened to Helen, is probably one of the few people who understands her and with whom she feels a genuine connection. Their talks about books and history are often something she looks forward to.

The central mystery meanders through the novel so it’s often easy to forget that’s the genre of fiction you’re reading. This could easily just be a late-in-life coming-of-age story if you remove the murders. I wasn’t really sure who the culprit was until probably a chapter or two before he/she is revealed anyway. I think that’s what the main issue with the book is; it seems unable to decide what it’s going for. Is this a shocking murder mystery or a story of one woman’s struggle for freedom from a lifetime of hardship? It can be both, sure, but in trying to straddle genres, it feels like Lippman has failed to execute either to perfection. The book is an entertaining read, and it’s certainly not heavy War & Peace-type material. I was just left wanting a little more oomph.

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