Sunday, July 7, 2024

Lady in the Lake


Baltimore, 1966. Housewife extraordinaire Maddie Schwartz has been married to her husband Milton for almost two decades now, believing she is perfectly happy with her life raising their teenage son Seth. When Milton takes home an ex-fling of hers from high school to dinner at their house, it sparks an epiphany within her as to how unhappy her life has been. She moves out of the house and they file for divorce. She then finds a small room in a shady neighborhood and fakes a house robbery to get insurance money, which she uses to move to yet another shady neighborhood. She meets policeman Ferdie in the process and he becomes her habitual lover. But what Maddie really desires is a career in journalism. Armed with wit and a dream, she shoehorns herself into a low-paying job at the local paper. Not taken seriously by everyone, she gets a big break when she finds not one but two murdered bodies, one of them getting the moniker Lady in the Lake.

The novel begins with a chapter all in italics narrated by Cleo Sherwood talking to you, the reader, and addressing you as Maddie Schwartz. Cute. The second person POV is rarely used in literature. Nonetheless all of this gets weird rather quickly because Cleo is the Lady in the Lake being alluded to in the title. If she is dead, shouldn’t she be enjoying the afterlife instead of sitting down with you to serve some hot tea about this Maddie Schwartz journalist wannabe? The chapters then alternate between Maddie Schwartz’s own story, narrated in third person, and firsthand anecdotes from people who meet her along the way.

That is one of the good things about this novel, the diversity of perspectives. Almost every person Maddie interacts with in her own chapters gets his or her own, usually right after their introduction, and provides you with a first person narration of their impression about the protagonist. In short, it is not just Cleo’s ghost who gets to pick her apart. Almost every character in this novel does! Vis-a-vis Maddie’s own chapters that she doesn’t narrate on her own, it feels as though we never get to truly hear her own voice here, which is strange but somehow works. This also leads to wild guesses early on that maybe she is just an alter ego of Cleo.

That is also the reason why your mind goes into speculation mode as you flip through the pages. The parallelisms between the lives of those two women are just too coincidental to brush off. Is this some sort of weird character projection thingy through an unreliable narrator? Is there going to be some switcheroo in the end, like, Maddie is really the Lady in the Lake and Cleo is the journalist? That is just one of several scenarios that kept playing inside my head while reading. While the ending veers toward a different path, the twist still caught me by surprise, even though I had an inkling that the storyline would go that way anyway.

As for socially relevant themes, the setting is in 60’s Baltimore. My only idea of that era is via the musical Hairspray, so I believe that was briefed enough as far as racial dynamics are concerned before reading this novel. Perhaps more appreciation can be had if you have been to the city even once. Just knowing the places they frequently refer to in this novel helps the city have a life of its own as if it were its own character. There are also a lot of references to Jewish customs and traditions given the religion of Maddie and her family.

The book is exciting alright, even though I was waiting for an even bigger twist. There are some loose ends here and there and it seems as though our heroine is always lucky with her exploits, taking advantage of the full plot armor the author serves her on a silver platter. In any case, the novel will have its own TV adaptation in the coming weeks care of AppleTV with Natalie Portman as Maddie Schwartz. The trailer is bonkers and it looks like Natalie is back in her Black Swan era. Now I am wondering how the POV galore prevalent in the novel will translate to the screen. To be honest, that is really one of this book’s many charms.

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