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Woman No. 17

Review

Woman No. 17

Lady needs some help. In her early 40s and recently separated from her wealthy husband, Karl, she is struggling to balance caring for her two children while also completing a draft of her memoir, already under contract based on a successful magazine article she previously had written about her relationship with her older son, Seth. But she has writer’s block, and even if she was able to get her thoughts down on paper, everything she writes about Seth fails to ring true anymore.

Now in his first year of college but living at home, Seth is a smart, snarky young man who hasn’t uttered a word since early childhood. Instead, he communicates with the world via his phone, tablet and Twitter, and with his mother via sign language, including a handful of non-ASL “special signs” that have meaning just for the two of them. Writing (or trying to write) about their early years together --- including her relationship with Seth’s father --- dredges up Lady’s complicated feelings toward her own estranged mother as well as self-doubts about how she has mothered her older son.

"WOMAN NO. 17 offers not only a propulsive plot but also important reflections on artistic creation, the lingering effects of bad mothers on their adult children, and the thorny question of how friends and family relate to their loved ones with disabilities."

Enter S (formerly known as Esther). Fresh out of college, she has a background in early education and established an easy rapport with Devin, Lady and Karl’s toddler. Lady thinks she’s hiring S as a live-in nanny to care for Devin while she gets some writing done. But S --- coming off of the end of her first serious relationship (with an artist who was dismissive of her own artistic ambitions) and the implosion of her first work of activist art --- has her own secret agenda for reinventing herself and taking the job in Lady’s household. Inspired by the complicated relationship with her own mother and by Karl’s sister, Kit (a notable photographer who once chose Lady as a subject), S embarks on a new creative venture --- one that winds up disrupting Lady’s whole family, not to mention S’s personal and professional lives.

It’s perhaps obvious that Lady and S have a lot in common --- both adopt names different from their given ones, both are undertaking creative projects, both have fraught pasts with their mothers…and, eventually, both come to claim Seth as their own in different ways. The two women (who narrate the story in alternating sections) even have increasingly similar voices as the novel progresses. The premise of S’s conceptual art project is a little far-fetched, as is the book’s somewhat hasty gesture toward some semblance of a resolution.

Still, WOMAN NO. 17 offers not only a propulsive plot but also important reflections on artistic creation, the lingering effects of bad mothers on their adult children, and the thorny question of how friends and family relate to their loved ones with disabilities. Lady and S want their relationship with Seth to be “special,” and both ultimately fail --- through their desire to possess this special young man --- to truly recognize his humanity, agency and growing independence.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 12, 2017

Woman No. 17
by Edan Lepucki

  • Publication Date: May 9, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Hogarth
  • ISBN-10: 1101904259
  • ISBN-13: 9781101904251