Heloise grew up as Helen Lewis, the product of her mother’s unfortunate devotion to her father, Hector, an abusive adulterer who never divorced his wife. Hector told Helen that she had a “nothing face” and refused to support her as she pursued her education. From his viciousness, and her mother’s refusal to protect her daughter, Helen learned to survive. Now Heloise leads a quiet, unobtrusive life with her eleven-year-old son, Scott, in an upper middle class neighborhood. When anyone inquires, she states that she is a lobbyist, although she is actually the proprietor of an escort service. Heloise has devised an elaborate business model and record-keeping system to ensure that only she and her assistant, Audrey, know the full details about how the service operates. Even her attorney and accountant are not fully apprised. Neither is Tom, the vice cop who has looked the other way and protected her for many years, even while professing his love for her and Scott, for whom he would love to be a father. But Heloise has never said “yes” to Tom’s marriage proposals.
Instead, she pays regular visits to Val, a condemned murderer who is Scott’s biological father. Of course, neither Val nor Scott have any knowledge of each other. Scott believes his father died in an accident before he was born. And when Heloise learned she was pregnant, she managed to escape Val’s clutches for a few months, during which he was tried and convicted. But Heloise knows she can never fully break away from her former pimp and so to protect her son, she visits Val and continues sending him a portion of her income every month. After all, she learned much from him.
A media frenzy over the apparent suicide of Michelle Smith, a “suburban madam,” catches Heloise’s attention, as does a cryptic warning from Tom. When the police question Heloise, showing her a photo found next to the dead woman, she realizes that her carefully constructed facade could be in danger of crumbling. Suddenly, her accountant is asking too many questions and a former employee is making demands. Heloise ponders just how much power Val can still wield from his prison cell, even as he brags about his prospects for a new trial in light of scandalous revelations about the prosecution’s expert witness.
No matter what, Scott must be protected. He must never know his father’s true identity or the details about his mother’s past and current means of support. Heloise will do whatever is necessary to shield Scott and keep him safe. If she can stay alive long enough.
Best selling author Laura Lippman employs her signature style to tell the story of Helen/Heloise Lewis, a woman who spends every waking moment afraid that the delicate infrastructure of her life will implode at any moment. And When She Was Good is Lippman’s latest must-read character study and thriller.
As a child, Helen Lewis observed her father, Hector, verbally and physically abuse her mother. As a teenager, however, she became the object of his wrath, as well, while her mother took no steps to protect her. In fact, as Hector began pummeling Helen, her mother actually seemed relieved and grateful for the respite. A good student who loved to read, Helen escaped from Hector and her parent’s dysfunctional relationship, but found herself in the arms of men who were every bit as corrupt and abusive as Hector. Eventually, she turned to prostitution and found herself enslaved to the sadistic Val. But Helen was clever and determined to succeed at anything she did, even if that meant doing whatever was necessary to be Val’s favorite and secure herself the most coveted role within his raunchy empire. Other girls came and went while Helen remained in his favor — most of the time, at least. Determined to better herself, she took remarkable risks in order to obtain books and read them in secret. She observed and learned valuable lessons about how to look out for herself and get the upper hand. The line between right and wrong is not always bright.
It has always been my contention that Heloise Lewis is an American everywoman — a single mother trying to maintain a civil relationship with her son’s father, a small-business woman nervous about her future.~~ Author Laura Lippman
Lippman’s narration again alternates between present time and Helen’s history, making current events contextual as she unveils Helen’s progression from a young girl to a thirty-six-year-old devoted mother scrambling to divest herself of the business she has built before it is too late. Lippman details the meticulous manner in which Heloise has learned to lie whenever necessary in order to keep the true nature of her business hidden. The author explores Heloise’s internal struggle to balance and justify the things she has done, while calculating what she will be required to do for the sake of her child. How far is too far? How much personal damage can Heloise sustain herself or inflict upon others in her quest to protect Scott? Her moral compass compels her to try to minimize the collateral damage caused or, when it is unavoidable, provide reparation. But Heloise lives perpetually on the edge, never relaxing or letting down her guard, always distrustful and wary. But she is growing tired and contemplating getting out of the business. Heloise must figure out what actions Val has managed to orchestrate despite his incarceration. Of course, weariness can beget mistakes. The result is a fascinating tale of betrayals, revenge, a mother’s devotion to her child, and the myriad ways in which the instinct to survive can corrupt even the most principled among us.
In typical Lippman fashion, Heloise is surrounded by an equally compelling cast of supporting characters, the most sympathetic being Terry, the man Heloise happens upon in the supermarket. He is sweet and undemanding, and Heloise feels herself draw to him as she allows herself to ponder, every so briefly, what it might be like to have a traditional relationship with a man. She is tempted to let her guard down, but the warning from Tom stays with her as events unfold. Her assistant, Audrey, has her own checkered past and, of course, there is Heloise’s troubled and conflicted relationship with her mother. Facing a devastating diagnosis, Heloise’s mother wants to be a grandmother to Scott, but can Heloise forgive the woman who failed her?
And When She Was Good moves at a taut, precisely measured pace as Lippman deftly demonstrates how tightly the web enveloping Heloise’s has been spun. The surprise ending may catch many readers off guard, just as it did me because Lippman expertly lulls readers into believing the fiction that she has created about one key character’s true identity and intentions. The result is yet another thought-provoking, absorbing study of a woman in crisis, desperate to regain control of her life and secure a future for the one thing she truly loves: her precious son.