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Mother, mother – ‘Woman No. 17’

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Edan Lepucki’s second novel an exceptional offering

No writer would bemoan significant success for his or her first novel. Critical and commercial acclaim will be welcomed. Almost everything about landing a big hit right out of the gate is largely positive.

Right up until you have to write book number two.

We’ve all heard of the “sophomore slump,” that notion that for whatever reason, your second attempt at something may well prove less successful. It’s as true a notion in the literary realm as it is on the athletic field – doing something well is hard, but doing something well AGAIN is even harder.

Not that you’d know it from reading Edan Lepucki, whose 2014 debut novel “California” offered readers a glimpse at a different kind of dystopia; it’s a quiet, intimate and heartbreaking portrait of the interpersonal sadness that might spring from the end of the world.

Her latest is “Woman No. 17” (Hogarth, $26), a sleek, perspective-shifting tale driven by the complexities of relationship dynamics, the notion of identity and the importance/absurdity of modern art and its impact. Despite a significant shift in genre, Lepucki nevertheless maintains the oddly jarring intimacies that were the true highlights of her previous work.

Lady (yes, that’s her name) has just kicked her husband Karl out of the house, although she might not be able to tell you just why. She has two children; the toddler is Devin, her child with Karl. The teenager is Seth, her mute son from her first marriage. Lady has been tapped to write a book, a memoir built about her experience raising Seth as a single mother; this leads to a desire to hire a nanny for Devin so that she might be able to find time to put in the work.

S (yes, just S) is a recent college graduate who aspires to become a serious artist. She sees the Craigslist ad for the nanny job and embraces the opportunity. Lady quickly hires her and sets her up as a live-in, with a place in the guest cottage in the house’s Hollywood Hills backyard. S quickly becomes a welcome addition to the household; she’s wonderful with Devin and quickly grows close to both Lady and Seth.

However, neither woman is entirely as she seems. Both are keeping secrets – secrets from one another and secrets from themselves. The entanglements grow and grow, binding each woman to the other even as the behavior of both begins to spin out of control. The roiling interiors masked by placid surfaces begin to bubble up; there’s no way of knowing just when they might explode – or who they might hurt.

“Woman No. 17” is a taut tightrope walk of a novel, a delicate balance between two perspectives. Lepucki alternates between Lady and S, offering extended peeks at the inner workings of one woman before shifting gears and exploring the psyche of the other. This back-and-forth allows for a sort of narrative Venn diagram; both Lady and S are telling tales of their own, but the POV movement helps form the shape of the storyline that encompasses both.

Lepucki is at her best when exploring emotional depths, pulling the deeper, darker feelings into the light. Motherhood is at the forefront in a lot of ways; both protagonists are possessed of extremely complex and potentially destructive feelings toward their own mothers, while Lady’s own maternal instincts are themselves divided and distinctly different.

Lady and S are each searching for answers to questions they’re not even aware that they’re asking. Sadness and sensuality and success are all tangled together into a psychosexual Gordian knot, with neither woman possessing a blade that might serve to slice it apart.

All of this is accentuated beautifully by Lepucki’s sharp sense of humor, a wicked wit that permeates the book with darkly funny moments that serve as the perfect counterpoint to the pathos that is the narrative’s foundation. Shots are fired at family life, at romance, at the art world – there are plenty of unsettling laughs to be found.

On the surface, “Woman No. 17” is almost completely unlike Lepucki’s first book. Yet there’s no denying that both sprang from the pen – and the mind – of the same author. This combination of distinct voice and wide range is exceedingly rare; we can only hope we don’t have to wait too long for the next work from this immensely talented writer.

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