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Laura Lippman
And When She Was Good
William Morrow / HarperCollins
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 978-0-061-70687-5
Publication Date: 08-14-2012
314 pages ; $26.998
Date Reviewed: 09-01-2012
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2012

Index:  Mystery  General Fiction

Tension and suspense seem so simple on first consideration. It's only in reflection that one might realize just how slippery our notions of these literary experiences can be. At the core all literature must employ them. But how they are used, how they are created and how they are maintained throughout a narrative becomes less and less clear the more one explores the best examples. Laura Lippman's 'And When She Was Good' is a great example of suspense at its best. But it is also a very low-key, realistic story about life in contemporary suburban America. That Lippman manages to get both in the same novel is as surprising as the events within the novel.

Lippman's premise is not necessarily promising. We meet Heloise in a coffee shop, reading about a suburban madam who has committed suicide. She swats down another customer who makes disparaging assumptions about the woman in the headline, for a reason. Heloise is herself a suburban madam. She's either successful, a smart businesswoman or a criminal mastermind — or both, depending on your perspective. When we turn the page, we meet her again in 1989 as Helen, whose unemployed father is cheating on her mother. Helen will become Heloise. We're instantly and totally engaged in Heloise / Helen's increasingly complicated life.

For all the familiarity of the situation, Lippman's precise prose and her clear conception of the character swiftly dispel any doubts as to quality. 'And When She Was Good' ratchets up the tension relentlessly within each timeline and between the two, mostly by carefully creating a cast of characters who have the textured feel of people we might actually know or meet. Lippman's realistic portraits of urban, suburban and exurban life feel like stories you might overhear in your own coffee shop — or tell yourself. Helen / Heloise is a superbly nuanced work of character, a sort of suburban Madam Bovary, willing to do anything to protect her child's so-far normal experience of growing up in an American suburb. Lippman's transparent prose renders Heloise's every decision not just sympathetic, but reasonable, logical — the best choice in a real world that doesn't serve up a great deal to everyone.

As Helen's past comes back to haunt Heloise's present, Lippman's plotting skills become increasingly apparent. This is a novel with an implied backdrop of sex and violence which mostly eschews both but in doing so keeps the focus on danger — but not physical peril as much as lifestyle peril. Heloise has a son, who does not, cannot know about his mother's secret occupation. How can she reinvent herself in this terrible economy and keep her comfortable suburban life? That Lippman can make us care, and care deeply about this is a rather incredible accomplishment.

Part of the fascination of what Lippman does is her ability to imagine the way that Heloise runs her business. For readers who enjoy the technical aspects of a crime novel, 'And When She Was Good' is a feast of fascinating creation. But Lippman does a lot more than work out the business plan for her suburban madam; she makes this a crucial plot detail, an economic tipping point. Heloise's business reflects her character, but when Heloise has finally created her business, she realizes that she could and should be much more than what she is. Her success leads her not to self-satisfaction, but to strive for both less and more. Lippman pulls off the duality of Helen's and Heloise's lives and their economic fates with an astonishing ease.

'And When She Was Good' offers readers a gallery of great characters, from Helen's father to the cop who helps keep Heloise out of harm's way. Audrey, Heloise's right-hand girl, is a particular delight. Lippman has a real feel for American suburban life and a knack for wringing suspense out of everyday events. The level of detail, the smart plotting and the nuanced observations about the people who surround us come together effortlessly. Lippman never judges, nor does she encourage her readers to judge. She simply gives us life as we might live it. Just as we go from one day to another, never stopping, Lippman keeps us going from one page to another, never stopping. It is, after all, suspense and tension that get us from one moment in this life to the next.

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