Helen Lewis has a story that is, sadly, all too familiar. Abused by her father and passively neglected by her mother, Helen was understandably starved for attention and affection, and at the age of seventeen she ran off with the first man who gave them to her.
Unfortunately, her knight in shining armor turned out to be a drug addict and thief, and at the ripe old age of eighteen Helen found herself stripping and giving lap dances to earn enough money to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.
So when a dealer her boyfriend owed money to offered Helen a chance to get out of the relationship, she jumped…out of the frying pan and into the fire. Turned out the dealer was also a pimp, and he promptly put Helen to work as one of his girls. Things finally took a turn for the better when Helen’s pimp was arrested for murder and she was able to get away and start over.
The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. Though she has changed her name to Heloise, has a son, and now lives in an upscale neighborhood in the D.C. suburbs, Heloise is still up to her old tricks…literally. Only now she’s the madam as well as one of the escorts.
Oh, things are legit on the surface. Heloise has her escort business carefully cloaked under the guise of both a lobbying agency and personal shopper business–even pays taxes and has a health care plan for her workers. It’s a serious double life she’s living, but Heloise is tough and resourceful, and she’s managed to make it a good life for her and her son.
Of course, the past never seems to want to stay in the past, and Heloise’s life is starting to slowly unravel. Her accountant is getting a little too nosey, one of her workers is threatening to go public, another “suburban madam” has turned up dead in her garage of an apparent suicide, and Heloise’s contact in the police department is dropping hints she needs to watch her back. Oh, and her former pimp? The one in jail for murder? He just happens to be the father of Heloise’s son…and he may be getting out of jail. Soon.
Based on her highly successful short story “Scratch a Woman,” Laura Lippman’s And When She Was Good doesn’t on the surface seem to have a plot that breaks any new ground. But, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. And as she’s demonstrated time and time again, Lippman is a master of the details. In her more than capable hands, And When She Was Good makes for an almost irresistibly compelling read–I mowed through it in one sitting. And it’s not done with high drama or needlessly intricate plotting, but rather the book’s hook hinges entirely on the finely detailed and explored characterizations of the players.
To a person, everyone present in And When She Was Good is a multifaceted, fully formed person whose behavior is believable and understandable, even when their actions are unforgivable. Not your stereotypical shady pimp, Val is surprisingly charismatic, even when he’s being an utterly duplicitous, cold-blooded bastard. Similarly, in what could have been a throwaway role, Lippman gives Heloise’s second in command, Audrey, enough of her own backstory to make her both interesting and somewhat mysterious in her motivations, causing the reader to wonder whether Heloise chose extremely well, or has set herself up for serious problems.
But it is Heloise herself who really shines. A bright young woman who once had a promising future ahead of her, Heloise has not let the hard knocks she has endured prevent her from overcoming her unconventional start. Instead, she has embraced the painful lessons she learned, putting them to use in an arguably ingenious manner to take control of her life and finally get ahead. And as the new life she’s built starts to crumble around her, instead of simply throwing in the towel or running again, she takes serious self-inventory, examining how it is she got to the point she is in her life; she asks herself, is she really satisfied with the path she’s walking, or is there something different–something more–she could be doing?
Far from running from her past and her conscience, Heloise decides to meet them both head-on, and the results are extremely satisfying.
And When She Was Good is available from William Morrow (ISBN: 978-0062197733).
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