MINI-REVIEW: Laura Lippman’s LADY IN THE LAKE

Lady_In_the_LakeI wanted to read Laura Lippman’s Lady In the Lake after I heard an NPR interview with the author. Lippman was knowledgeable and personable about her city’s fractured history, the state of American politics and journalism, its ills and its profound necessity for examining the state of the nation and ensuring free, open democracy. Certainly, her standalone novel contains threads of these ideas. It is, however, unlike Lippman’s expansive personality and openness, a cramped book. The premise held promise: a recently separated late-thirties beauty, Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz (née Morgenstern) has left marriage and middle-class comfort behind to pursue a reporter’s beat. In 1966, there was a ceiling still so thick for women that not even Maddie’s sledgehammer beauty and persistence can break it. Living in one of Baltimore’s seedier neighbourhoods, Maddie pursues an affair with a black policeman, whose nightly visits, an inter-racial “romance” still illicit and dangerous to both, are vigorous and all-consuming. Maddie revels in her freedom for sex and solitude. There’s a mild regret at leaving her son Seth with his father. Seth proves a snivelling, whiny character and I never warmed to him. If at first Maddie’s pursuit of a journalistic career seems random and half-hearted, once she gets a clerical job at a local paper, she begins a relentless pursuit to find the killer of the “lady in the lake”, Cleo Sherwood, make her mark, and get a beat of her own.

Lippman’s novel is very much about race and ethnicity: Maddie is Jewish and has, until she left her charmless husband, lived narrowly in a close-knit, rigidly-maintained community. When she breaks out of it, we see the spectre of the cataclysmic changes brought about, especially for women, in 1960s America, no matter how conventional and closed things still appear. Maddie is not a likable character, but she is compelling and beautifully a-stereotypical of how a women should behave, how a heroine should behave. She should be motivated by ethics, integrity, a dedication to truth and justice, no? What I loved about Maddie was how she was singlemindedly dedicated to Maddie and a stubborn commitment to NOT living her life as a housewife and mother. Maddie wasn’t sure what she was going to do, or how she would accomplish it, but she knocks people out of her path with amoral and self-interested aplomb. I kind of loved her for it. She wasn’t even all that bright and the reader could see her mistakes chapters away. It is to Lippman’s credit for creating Maddie as she did and still surprising me with a twisty, though a tad pat, resolution to the lake-bound lady’s murder.

Other than the complex, compelling Maddie, Lippman tells the story of the lady in the lake with multiple narrative voices, including the lady herself. Yes, Cleo Sherwood’s ghost speaks to Maddie’s at-times foolish pursuit, as do sundry others: the cop who loves her, a murderer who’s responsible for the death of a child (again, a case where Maddie behaves like a bull in a china shop in pursuit of her place in the journalistic sun), the child herself, a columnist at Maddie’s paper, a waitress at a local diner, a medium, a movie-goer, a bartender, even a clairvoyant Maddie consults. There are, at my count, over fifteen narrative POVs, most negative as their lens turns and settles on Maddie. But Maddie’s voice remains the most engrossing, her head the one you’d rather be in. In other words, there was much I enjoyed of Lippman’s mystery, but much I grew impatient with. The whiplash of changing POVs with every quite short chapter was vertiginous. But for Maddie and the seedy, complex world of 1966 Baltimore, I would have grown restless. As an experiment in a multi-voiced mystery novel capturing a time and place and all its tensions, this totally works. As a pleasurable read, not so much. Still, I’d love to hear if any of my readers have read it and what they might have to say about it.

Laura Lippman’s The Lady In the Lake is published by William Morrow. It was released on July 23rd and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from William Morrow, via Edelweiss+.

4 thoughts on “MINI-REVIEW: Laura Lippman’s LADY IN THE LAKE

  1. I just read this! I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. I think the multiple POVs were what I liked best. It was like a tapestry of the city. In the end I found Maddie a really frustrating character (more than intended), because I just didn’t believe she’d make a success of working as a reporter or columnist. She wasn’t interested in other people. I would have liked this more as the story of a real journalist in the making.

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    • Ha, it’s great that we liked it for the exact opposite reasons. I thought the ending was hurried, but I loved how successful and rich Ferdie ended up. I liked that Maddie didn’t really have much affect. And you’re right, she was less dedicated to the ideals of the profession than some notion she had of what she should do. She sprang, like Gatsby, out of some ideal concept of herself, but she was very much made up, even TO herself. And now I’m babbling. It’s great to get a sense of what other readers thought.

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  2. I liked this a lot more than either you or Liz, I think. I especially like what Liz aptly calls “a tapestry of the city”–I particularly liked this technique as a rebuke to the insularity of the world Maggie had lived in. The novel takes interesting distance from Maggie–not allowing her the breadth of vision given to readers, and rendering her sections in close third person instead of the first person of the other scenes. (Do you think we are to take these as possible ventriloquism on Maggie’s part? Future columns? That would change our sense of her, for sure.) I confess I rather liked Maggie: I think I fell in love with her the way so many of the men in the novel do. But I think Lippmann asks us to qualify our admiration, especially in the end, when she turns out to have been a success but maybe not the success she set out to be.

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    • Well, I’m with the men, because I really liked her too. Maybe I liked her less for her “yellow hair,” to quote Yeats? and more because she defied my romance-heroine-focussed notion of a heroine. I loved how she sent the husband packing (and yet she was strangely dependent on him too) and sent the lover on his way too … to stay true to some notion she had of herself. Maddie was … hmm … dense, not in a charming where angels fear to tread way, but in a amoral, indifferent to other people way.

      I think the character most akin to her was “The Battle-axe” reporter. By the end, I like to think of Maddie as some beautiful, hardened “dame” à la noir. And the years that go by, they make her ordinary, another career woman, but in that news room, in 1966, she swam against all the currents relentlessly, but not intelligently. It was a very interesting anti?heroine concept on Lippman’s part.

      As for the voices, maybe I loved Maddie and wanted more of her. As an idea, of the city’s multiplicity, it was well-conceived and executed. But I saw what Lippman was trying to do, laudable as it was, and it brought me out of the story. And some of the voices were not as well done and believable as others.

      I’m so happy you and Liz read it! I felt quite lonely-readerish about it. Merci!

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