Book Review: Dream Girl by Laura Lippman
Dream Girl by Laura Lippman is chilling and compulsively readable, a superb blend of psychological suspense and horror that reveals the mind and soul of a writer and touches on timely issues that include power, agency, appropriation, and creation.
This was my first time reading Laura Lippman, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect beyond a thrilling, smart crime novel. What I definitely wasn’t expecting was a slyly clever, startlingly believable impersonation of a Great White Male Writer haunted by his past as much as by the demons his lack of self-awareness has allowed to congregate at the outskirts of his notice. That is until an unfortunate series of circumstances has him confronting them all at once and in the most terrifying way possible.
Gerry Anderson has done well out of his writing career, earning both accolades and fortune for his small but impressive oeuvre of novels. His biggest hit, by far, has been his fourth book, Dream Girl, a departure from the rest of his works. So realistic was Dream Girl in its depiction of the interior life of a woman that Gerry is constantly accused of either basing the heroine on a real person or, even worse, stealing the idea from another writer, perhaps one of the students he was forced to teach earlier on in his career. Gerry is adamant that Aubrey, his heroine, is entirely his own creation, despite the protests of others.
Then there was his colleague at Hopkins, Shannon Little, who at one point tried to claim she had inspired Aubrey—he wonders if she is newly emboldened by #MeToo to assert this nonsense again. It’s true that it was very, very bad form for Gerry to have an affair with a colleague, but [his first wife] Lucy had practically thrown him into Shannon’s arms. Being accused of faithlessness when one is faithful quickly becomes tiresome; it’s only natural to feel that one might as well commit the crime of which one is constantly being accused. And Lucy’s paranoia about Gerry and other women was particularly wounding to him, which she knew. He had set out to be as different from his father as possible.
As with other writers of his ilk, Gerry has been married and divorced a number of times and has a truckload of daddy issues. Now in his 60s, he’s moved from New York City to Baltimore to be near his dying mother. Once she passes on, he’s stuck not only with a monstrosity of an expensive duplex but also with a huge case of writer’s block that he’s trying to hide from his agent. The last thing he needs is an accidental fall that injures him so seriously he is confined to a hospital bed and requires round-the-clock companionship.
Convalescence is dull at first, but boredom soon seems a welcome alternative to a series of disturbing phone calls and ghostly appearances from a woman claiming to be Aubrey. No one else sees any trace of this woman, so Gerry tries to convince himself that the painkillers he’s been prescribed are inducing hallucinations even as he worries that he’s inherited the dementia that plagued his mother’s final days. But when he wakes up one day next to a dead body, not even he can explain that away as a trick of the mind.
This witty, deeply literate book is as much an homage to popular entertainment (think of pop fiction turned into acclaimed movies such as Misery and Rear Window) as it is a love letter to and excoriation of the white male writers who’ve dominated American letters for decades now. The Hemingways and Roths and Mailers whose personal misogyny bled through their pages, inextricable from their writing talent, are personified in Gerry, who, unlike his predecessors, has survived into our more enlightened era. Gerry must thus confront in these pages not only his self-serving relationship with deception but also a 21st century uninterested in forgiving his faults by claiming them a necessary by-product of genius.
Gerry has always thought of himself as an essentially honest person, and not simply out of virtue. He lies for a living, he doesn’t want to do it for free. Besides, it’s wearying to lie, a waste of time and energy to track one’s mistruths. Being honest is expedient and efficient.
Yet soft, tactical lies, so-called white lies—is it okay to call them white or is that now racist?—are the social WD-40 of day-to-day life, greasing all the tiny connections, keeping things frictionless.
Gerry’s devotion to a frictionless life may prove his downfall, and yet, who doesn’t indulge in the occasional white lie? Faced with the flaws of others, what kind of monster doesn’t accommodate their seemingly harmless fictions? The genius of Ms. Lippmann’s latest novel is that even as you’re repelled by Gerry’s self-absorption and privilege, you can’t help sympathizing with him; adaptation is difficult, and we’ve all lied to ourselves in ways that mirror the deceptions of this book’s characters. There are no clear heroes here as Ms. Lippmann navigates the life of a man who’s now living a nightmare, haunted by the specters of the women he’s wronged.
Smart and suspenseful, Dream Girl is Ms. Lippmann’s first horror novel, though by my reckoning it falls safely on the side of psychological thriller rather than true gore-fest. Regardless of genre, it’s an adept exploration of literary culture, high and low, that is by turns slyly hilarious and sobering as it considers the many facets of obsession and their repercussions.