Book Review: Lady in the Lake

When I saw a signed hardcover of Lady in the Lake in my neighborhood’s LFL, a murder mystery by Laura Lippman, I picked it up for my husband. I wasn’t familiar with Lippman, but it was endorsed on the back jacket by Roxanne Gay and he loves pop thrilled, so it seemed like a no brainer.

The gift was as well received as I anticipated and it sat…for months. So, as any good passive aggressive wife would do, *I* read the book. But, even though it started as a spite read, I was pretty quickly hooked.

Lippman was a longtime reporter with the Baltimore Sun and her protagonist, Maddie, is on the same path, bent on uncovering two unsolved murders: one of a young woman and one of adolescent girl, one black and one white, one who scarcely makes headlines and one who saturates them.

Set in the 1960’s Baltimore, Lady in the Lake follows Maddie Schwartz’s mid-life crisis, life as a newly single woman and her entree into high profile crime reporting. While Maddie’s voice is in third person, the 20 or so other characters, each with a chapter of their own, are in the first. I appreciated the various voices, with each chapter owning its own narrative—-tellings from the young, old, storied elite, working poor, grisly criminals, unwitting wrongdoers, and so on. They’re introspective and nuanced, some quiet others comical, and all very intentional.

What gave me pause, though, was realizing the unnamed narrator was the ghost of Cleo Sherwood, the young black waitress who’d gone missing only to be cast a Maddie as the Lady in the Lake. My immediate reaction was visceral, and not because Cleo’s voice was emotionally manipulative or reductive (I actually found her character and those around her mostly effectual), but because writing across race (or gender, sexuality, and disability) can get messy and how! Face scrunched and stomach clenched, I wondered if continued reading would land in a realm magical Negroes and revisionist history.

What threw me for a loop was that on the back jacket, Roxane Gay had said this was her favorite book of the year! Oh wait! That bit of praise on was for *another* Lippman book. Reading comprehension fail on my end, but if there is anyone whose stance on writing for perspectives other than one’s own I respect, it’s Roxane Gay’s.

In one of the my favorite Bad Feminist essays about The Help, Gay says, “I write across race, gender, and sexuality all the time. I would never want to be told I can’t write a story where the protagonist is a white man or a Latina lesbian or anyone who doesn’t resemble me. The joy of fiction is that in the right hands, anything is possible. I firmly believe our responsibility as writers is to challenge ourselves to write beyond what we know as much as possible. 

When it comes to white writers working through racial differencethough, I am conflicted, and, I am learning, far less tolerant than I should be. If I take nothing else from the book and movie in question, I know I have work to do. For that reason alone, I don’t regret engaging with these texts.”

This essay is one I revisit often, and generally, I tend to agree. Admittedly, if I had known the details of the plot beforehand, Lady in the Lake probably would have been a book I’d passed on, but Lippman is a talented writer and frankly, I wanted to know what happened. I shelved my critical lens at a point when I probably should have been paying special attention, continued on an audiobook instead, listened while I painted, and thought it fine. It also reminded me I still need to read Difficult Women.

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