Dream Girl by Laura Lippman
In Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl, sixty-one-year-old author Gerry Andersen has an accident that leaves him bedridden and heavily sedated for three months. Andersen’s young assistant, Victoria, goes on double duty as both secretary and nurse. In the evening a new woman, Aileen, enters the writer’s Baltimore penthouse as night nurse.
Andersen, a successful author of literary fiction, is best known for his novel Dream Girl, which has brought him wealth, fame, and a number of awards. Since its publication, there has been immense speculation about who inspired the book’s main character, Aubrey. Gerry’s friends and readers believe he neither sees nor hears “ordinary” women. He’s only capable of perceiving women as objects of desire. So how could he have gotten this one woman, Aubrey, so right on the page? How could he have seen so deeply into her inner world?
He couldn’t have. Either she was a real person, or someone else created this vivid character from scratch and Andersen stole her.
In bed, injured, with no connection to the world except his cell phone, Gerry receives disturbing calls from someone who claims to know his secrets. Some of the calls seem to be from Aubrey herself, a woman who he insists does not exist. His ex-girlfriend, Margot, a gold-digger, extortionist and unashamed hanger-on, seems to be the prime suspect. But the calls continue even after her murder.
As Gerry–immobilized, isolated, and dependent–obsesses over the identity of his tormentor, he recognizes that he’s become the most unreliable of narrators. His mind is addled by opioid pain meds and sleeping pills, while his isolation leaves him at the mercy of two nurses he trusts less and less.
In the afterword, Lippman said she wanted to create a claustrophobic novel, a story of shut-in reality, and she did. Dream Girl is claustrophobic both physically and intellectually. Physically, all of the action takes place in a single room, in a single bed, from which the protagonist cannot move. Intellectually, the story takes place within a tradition of bedridden protagonists that includes Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery, Alan Grant from Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and Jeff Jeffries from Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Lippman directly references the first two several times in the story, though she doesn’t mention the third. In the first case, Misery, an author is tormented by an obsessive fan who doesn’t want him to get rid of a beloved character. In the second, a detective is trying to solve a centuries-old crime, based on evidence he collects–through an assistant–from primary and secondary sources. In the third, a man tries to make sense of a crime he thinks he has perceived while immobilized and possibly dreaming.
The plot of Dream Girls has many layers. Is someone trying to extort Gerry Andersen? If so, who? Did someone actually murder Margot? If so, who? Who is calling Gerry in the middle of the night? Where did Victoria go? Who is Aileen, really? And how do the alternating past-tense chapters, the ones that delve into Gerry’s childhood and three failed marriages, relate to the present-tense plot?
If those questions pique your interest, you’ll enjoy this book. Lippman writes for the engaged reader, not the lazy one, and if your mind likes the work of fitting together disparate pieces, you’ll like this book.
As for me–and I hate to say this–I found the thickly layered plot devices too contrived. Lippman is a brilliant crime writer, up there with Margaret Millar and Dorothy B. Hughes. (And forgive me for comparing her to only women, but those two were exceptional by any measure.) In Sunburn, she proved she doesn’t need to resort to narrative trickery. She can tell a story straight and have it hit home.
This isn’t my favorite of Lippman’s works, but it’s engaging and it has its high points. She’s immensely talented, and I look forward to her next work.