Laura Lippman's new stand-alone novel, AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD, opens with a scene seemingly designed to jar readers out of their preconceptions, let alone their comfort zones. A woman has been found dead in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. She was attractive, well put-together and, by all accounts, polished and respectable. She was also, as it turns out, the madam for a high-end prostitution ring servicing the Washington elite.
"In addition to being a genuinely suspenseful novel, Lippman's latest is a compelling portrait of a woman most readers never would have even considered before."
Readers certainly will be surprised at this turn of events, but Heloise, the heroine of Lippman's novel, hardly is. She's exactly the same, after all; she runs a small firm (masquerading as a Washington lobbying group and as an online luxury-goods shopping service) with several call girls --- she even continues to see clients herself. But she's also a single mom to her beloved preteen son Scott, by all accounts a very good one. How did a woman come to land in this position? And what are the implications for Heloise in the apparent suicide of a woman just like her?
Lippman reveals Heloise's past gradually, through a series of flashbacks that start when Heloise (then known as Helen) was a high schooler with a particularly dysfunctional family, through a series of bad relationships that culminated in her pregnancy with Scott. Scott's father? Helen's pimp, Val, a charismatic but ruthless man (now spending possibly the rest of his life in prison) who would think nothing of killing a rival --- or tracking down one of his former prostitutes whom he perceives as a threat.
Heloise now has become successful enough to be the only single mom in her well-to-do suburb, successful doing the only thing she's ever been taught to do, and by thinking creatively all the time. She is smart and interested in bettering herself, perhaps even starting a legitimate business far away from Val's continued surveillance, but she doesn't know what that would look like; nor can she imagine, after a lifelong series of disastrous relationships, a straightforward love affair with a man. As Lippman's novel progresses, Heloise starts to allow herself to imagine both, but the reader soon realizes that the prospects of either coming to pass are slim at best.
In addition to being a genuinely suspenseful novel, Lippman's latest is a compelling portrait of a woman most readers never would have even considered before. Although she acknowledges in her author's note that Heloise's complicated business model is one of her own devising, it's clear that women like Heloise do exist --- perhaps under readers' own noses. AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD will encourage readers to reflect both on their own preconceptions about sex workers and on the prospects of smart, driven, but ultimately disadvantaged women like Heloise to make legitimate names for themselves.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 17, 2012