She Was Very Good Indeed
Laura Lippman takes an unflinching look at the life of a “suburban madam.”
Published: August 29, 2012
Heloise Lewis gets into an argument with some strangers in line at Starbucks in the opening scene of And When She Was Good (William Morrow, hardcover), the latest novel from acclaimed crime writer and Baltimorean Laura Lippman. The point of contention is a headline: “Suburban Madam Dead in Apparent Suicide.” Heloise, the novel’s protagonist, bristles at the assumption that the situation is a simple one: the woman’s life reducible to a pat summary. “‘She could have been my neighbor. She was someone’s neighbor. Someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s mother. . . She was a person. You can’t sum up her entire life up in two words,” Heloise argues.
Heloise knows this well. Although she looks for all the world like any other mom in her mid-30s, she’s a suburban madam herself, running a call-girl business that caters to a high-end clientele (of politicians, shockingly) in a fictional Baltimore suburb called Turner’s Grove. Heloise’s employees ostensibly work for the Women’s Full Employment Network, a boutique lobbying firm working toward “income parity for all women,” a mission so boring that no one asks for more details—exactly what Heloise wants. She files just enough paperwork and expenditures to look legitimate and tells almost no one, not even her accountant, what she is really up to.
Like some of Lippman’s other books—which include the Tess Monaghan series and six standalone books—And When She Was Good is the story of a woman who holds herself apart from the world. In the Starbucks, after the argument is over, Heloise reflects, “How would [she] be described by those who know her? Or in a headline, given that so few people really know her. Scott’s mom. The quiet neighbor who keeps to herself. Nobody’s daughter, not as far as she’s concerned. Nobody’s wife, never anyone’s wife, although local gossip figures her for a young widow because divorcées never move into Turner’s Grove.”
When we meet Heloise, it seems that things are about to change, and not for the better. Besides the news of the suburban madam who has allegedly committed suicide, Heloise is getting hints that the careful structure she’s wrought may be vulnerable to attack. She has made a practice of holding everyone at arm’s length, to protect what she has and to distance herself from her past; she has even changed her name from Helen to Heloise. She does all this not only to keep her profession a secret, but also to protect her young son, Scott, who doesn’t know her true profession or that his father—Heloise’s dangerous former pimp, Val—is still alive, in prison.
And When She Was Good (the title is an homage to a little-known Philip Roth novel, When She Was Good) is, simply put, a really good story. In the author’s note at the end of the book, Lippman writes that she had the idea for this book in 2001, before real headlines about suburban madams hit newsstands, as in 2008, when the so-called D.C. Madam committed suicide rather than face prison time for money laundering and racketeering. But Lippman is grateful that she waited so long to write it; in the interim, she and husband David Simon, the mastermind behind The Wire and Treme, added a baby daughter to their family, which already included a son from Simon’s previous marriage.
“I needed to acquire some wisdom and experience before I wrote this book,” Lippman said in mid-August on the day the book was published. “I had to see value in the importance of community, especially when one is raising a child. The real tragedy of Heloise’s situation is not what she does for a living and not even her past, which has been abusive and featured all sorts of physical and emotional indignities. Her tragedy is that . . . she has been cut off from everyone.”
Although parts of the book are clearly fantastic—including Heloise’s business plan, which Lippman freely acknowledges is reality-based but improbable—Heloise’s story rings true. Indeed, Lippman has dedicated this book to “every woman I know,” and some of the passages are painfully on-point. In one instance, Heloise and her mother get into an awkward dance over who should have the black-cherry soda and who should have lemon-lime. “Lord, the endlessly twisted passivity of women, the inability to say, I want this. She tells her mother to take the soda she wants. Her mother thinks she’s lying and gives her the soda she actually wants, assuming that’s what anyone would want. And Heloise really preferred the lemon-lime. It’s exhausting, this relationship.”
And When She Was Good hits hard, too, on the themes of regret and forgiveness—especially considering the omitted rest of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem: “... she was very good indeed / But when she was bad she was horrid.” Although she has been treated terribly by people in her past, Heloise has also caused great pain to others, both intentionally and unintentionally. Her coming-to-terms with that and her attempts to make things right—“making a clean breast of things,” as she says—drive home the terrible truth, that we sometimes make choices that cannot be undone.
Although there is a classic tell-all scene at the end of the book that wraps up all the loose ends, there is no sense that Heloise is off the hook, as can often be the case in crime writing. “I’ve never been huge on redemption as a major theme in crime fiction,” Lippman said. “I’ve always been uneasy with the idea that all these people died, but the main character’s redeemed and somehow it’s a good ending.”
Lippman has created a nuanced and complex character in Heloise. She is sharp and clearheaded about her business, making sure that she isn’t vulnerable to tax evasion or the other offenses that often bring down a business like hers. She is a determined autodidact—something she regrets she has in common with Val, her son’s father—teaching herself both history and table manners. Her dry and cynical sense of humor makes for bright spots in some of the book’s dark passages, as when she reflects on her abusive father’s hold on both her mother and his ex-wife. “[She] could never understand how her father had landed any woman, much less two. But as her studies in world history advanced—she was admitted to the AP class as a junior, a real achievement—she gained insights into how the scarcity of a commodity made people irrational.”
But while her abusive upbringing and her mothering instinct make her tough and sometimes ruthless, Heloise is also very lonely. Standing apart from the other mothers at her son’s soccer game, Heloise thinks, “True, she encourages incuriosity in most people. Yet it’s still hurtful to see how easily people fall into line with one’s desire to be ignored.” She only experiences sex with love one time in her life. Occasionally she thinks of what might have been with Val had they been different people: “It’s hard not to imagine a parallel universe where the un-fucked-up versions of themselves meet and marry, carry out the normal lives denied them . . . they could have loved each other, in another world.”
And When She Was Good is a gripping story that is more than just a crime novel—it’s the record of a woman’s life who, indeed, could be any one of us.
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