Is Woman No. 17 The Next 'Girls'?
Spoiler Alert: it is most certainly not.
Those with similar literary tastes to mine would likely agree that summer 2016 was an epic one for the written word. Sweetbitter, The Girls, and Rich & Pretty, all of which I tore through in a matter of weekdays (subway commutes, lunch—trust me, people who ‘don’t have time to read,’ you can make it work) encapsulated a lot of what I am looking for when I look for books to read. The right mix of intrigue, humor, with a dash of semi-depressing humanity and a pinch of poetic flair: the recipe for a perfect book. Given what a good job The Girls did of satisfying these requirements, I am constantly seeking out “the next The Girls.” In fact, if we were to take a look at my Amazon History, that exact phrase would likely turn up in my frequent searches. When I came across Woman No. 17, which was purported as a perfect read for fans of Emma Cline’s debut, I snapped it up immediately.
Woman No. 17 takes place in Los Angeles, with the better part of the book occurring inside the stately Holmby Hills home of Lady Daniels, who has just banished her husband to live with his sister and is in desperate need of an au pair to help care for her toddler, Devon. What Lady doesn’t state in her want ad is that she also has a son, Seth, who is a fully-functioning 18 year old except for one thing: he’s non-verbal.
Esther “S” Shapiro, a young and refreshingly unpolished recent Berkeley graduate, endears Lady to the extent that she hires her on the spot, without so much as a single reference check. As it turns out (mild spoiler ahead), the reason S is so goofy and endearing is because she is actually playing a character—her frumpy, alcoholic mother—for the sake of “her art.” It doesn’t hurt that Kit Daniels, Lady’s sister-in-law, is a renowned photographer and one of S’s idols. S starts off strong, winning the hearts of both Lady and Devon, but when she goes after Seth, “as her mother would’ve done,” she begins to tread in seriously muddy waters.
Allow me to clear the air from the outset (well, 4 paragraphs after the outset): Woman No. 17 was no The Girls. The author, Edan Lepucki, writes well and certainly has Emma Cline-level potential, but Woman No. 17 is (hopefully) not a full representation of that.
Perhaps it is because New York is so wholly different from Los Angeles, but I had a hard time believing most of these characters. Lady Daniels, who has no discernibly redeeming qualities, throws her husband—who is nothing but kind to her—out of the house, continues to treat him horribly, and he still wants her back? Okay? Esther “S” Fowler is responsible for a [semi-spoiler] failed art project at Berkeley and is exacting her revenge on a random family by ‘transforming’ into her alcoholic mother for another art project doomed to fail? Okay…
Also, and this is a major pet peeve of mine: Don’t. Bill. A. Book. As. A. Thriller. If. It’s. NOT. A. Thriller. Look, I get it! Thrillers sell! But there was nothing mysterious, no major twists and turns, and most of the excitement occurred in the first half of the book. There’s nothing worse than reading on for a promised plot twist, only to hit the last page and discover there wasn’t one. Lepucki, I’m rooting for you, but I’m going to say give this one a miss.