Jessica Woodbury's Reviews > Woman No. 17

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
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really liked it
bookshelves: library

This book is not a mystery and yet it feels like one while you read it. Two women, each keeping secrets, and the reader waits with baited breath to find out when and what will be revealed. I blew through it quickly, like Lepucki's previous novel CALIFORNIA, but I found WOMAN NO. 17 significantly more satisfying.

I held off on reading this because I am not really a fan of books about wealthy women or performance artists and this is a book about both. But the reason I chafe against that type of subject normally is usually because these novels fall into clear boxes, fit into stereotypes, and don't do much that interests me. This one interested me constantly.

Lady has a complicated history that you wouldn't guess seeing her nice house in the Hollywood Hills. Esther is just out of college at Berkeley with a failed performance art project ready to start her new one: where she takes on the persona of her mother. Part of that project is to take a job as a nanny just like her mother did. Both Lady and Esther have difficult mothers who play large roles in the narratives of their lives. Lady's complicated relationships--with her adorable toddler, with her nonverbal teenage son, with her estranged producer husband, with her photographer sister-in-law--will all get even more complicated when Esther joins the family as a nanny so that Lady can start writing a memoir.

The book follows both Lady's and Esther's perspectives in a way that keeps the pacing and suspense moving forward.

While I liked this book very much, it is worth discussing some ways in which it troubled me. Lady has very problematic feelings towards her son's disability. It's okay for a character to have those feelings, but we still live in a world where people may not necessarily recognize those views as problematic. Worse, Lady discusses autism (which her son does not have) incorrectly more than once and it's unclear if the author knows she is incorrect or not. Lady says several times that her son is not a savant, not without emotion, so not autistic. These are really damaging things to say and it's impossible for me to read this book without correcting the record since the author does not do so. Being a savant does not make you autistic. People with autistic are not unemotional. These stereotypes should not exist in this book because they do more harm than narrative good.

Lady specifically says, for example, that her son was a "snuggler," and "It's one reason why he wasn't diagnosed with anything beyond the mutism. He can show affection to the people he loves." I nearly threw the book across the room at that point. Especially because someone who has been through a formal autism diagnosis process would know this is not true. Lack of emotion has nothing to do with diagnosis. People with autism feel emotions keenly and express them in ways anyone can recognize and interpret.

This is a book that features a disabled character as someone with his own desires, his own will, his own autonomy, and that is wonderful. But he is still seen by all the other characters as being defined by his disability. We almost never see him discussed without discussing his disability. It certainly seems that this is part of the point Lepucki is trying to make, but she has still managed to have the entire book revolve around this problematic perspective without picking it apart in much detail. At one point, Lady notes that when her son is on Twitter he never discusses his disability, and at the end there are some signs that things have changed, but it doesn't feel like enough. Especially for a disabled reader who could find the book too problematic to be worth reading.
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Reading Progress

June 15, 2017 – Started Reading
June 15, 2017 – Shelved
June 16, 2017 – Finished Reading
December 18, 2017 – Shelved as: library

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