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Dream Girl


Dream Girl

Laura Lippman turns Stephen King's MISERY on its head in her latest novel, DREAM GIRL, a sly examination of privilege both male and authorial. While King’s protagonist is a writer held hostage by a deranged fan, hers is a novelist tormented by a fictional character of his own creation.

Sixty-something Gerry Andersen has had an enviable career as an author. He’s enjoyed prizes, critical acclaim and a spot on the bestseller list (he’s still living off the residuals from his mid-’90s hit). But lately he’s been in both a personal and professional slump. His mother has died, just after he abandoned New York City for his dumpy hometown of Baltimore, where he moved to care for her. Plus, he’s suffering from a bad case of writer’s block. Then an accident leaves him confined to a hospital bed in his expensive condo, with only his meek assistant and a sullen nurse to keep him company.

Gerry is immobilized, but his mind is very much occupied due to some troubling letters and phone calls he’s been receiving from a woman named Aubrey. But Aubrey isn't --- can’t be --- real. She's the main character in his most celebrated novel, Dream Girl. That book, about a three-day affair between an older man and a younger woman, made Gerry’s reputation. It also earned him praise for his depiction of Aubrey, with critics patting him on the back “for giving a voice and an inner life to what the novel’s main character, Daniel, saw merely as an object of his desire.” Never mind that in real life, Gerry seems to have only the vaguest understanding of what makes women tick.

"Laura Lippman turns Stephen King's MISERY on its head in her latest novel, DREAM GIRL, a sly examination of privilege both male and authorial."

Now here’s Aubrey herself, ready to take ownership of her story and disrupt Gerry’s life in the process. In fact, it was the shock of seeing one of these letters that caused his near-fatal tumble down the apartment’s menacing floating staircase in the first place. (Lippman excels at making Gerry’s sleek, soulless condo a place of creeping horror.)

Gerry is determined to discover who is behind the letters and calls. Could it be his vindictive ex-girlfriend Margot, whom he likens to both a praying mantis and a virus “that moves from host to host”? One of his three former wives? The colleague he slept with decades ago? Or are Aubrey’s messages just a terrifying hallucination, perhaps a sign that he’s slipping into dementia, just like his mother? It’s definitely possible. The letter he’s convinced he received from Aubrey can’t be found, and there’s no record of the creepy, late-night calls.

Gerry is smart and perceptive, if a little too enamored of his own intelligence. He delights in literary references --- John Cheever, Ben Jonson and Ross Macdonald are among the names that pop up. Lippman even winks at her own backlist, allowing Tess Monaghan, the journalist-turned-detective star of many of her earlier novels, a brief appearance. But as the astute PI points out, she can’t help a client who is “lying to himself.”

There’s no question that Gerry, when he chooses, can be a keen reader of people and situations. But he's just as often content with skimming the surface, letting his first impressions --- and his own unexamined biases --- dictate how he sees others. His unwillingness, or his inability, to truly see those around him turns out to be his undoing.

Take Gerry’s attitude toward his “wastrel” father’s betrayal of his mother. Their breakup was a pivotal event in his life, but he fails to grasp the true nature of his parents’ relationship. As a young man, he’s married to an equally talented writer named Lucy. But when his career takes off instead of hers, Gerry never questions why, ignoring the unearned advantages that likely helped make him a success. When he speaks dismissively of an eager seminar student, he believes it’s because she lacks talent. But would he be so quick to write her off if she were not “a large girl with cat-eye glasses and blue hair”? Readers will rightfully roll their eyes when he insists it’s “sheer coincidence” that the students he singles out for praise are two men and an attractive woman.

Gerry doesn’t just misread other people; he also misunderstands himself. In the story of his own life, he casts himself as someone whose “conscience is clear. Clearish.” Sure, he has made mistakes, but his flaws are minor and entirely forgivable, or so he believes. “[A]ll Gerry had ever wanted was to be good, not his father,” he thinks. “For much of his life he had been able to achieve this not inconsiderable goal.”

Gerry may believe he’s good, but we can see that the truth is considerably more complicated. Through his present-day narration and recollection of earlier events, he exposes the faults in himself that he’d prefer not to see. The extent of his self-delusion becomes obvious in a critical scene two-thirds through the novel, where we see a moment from Gerry’s past that has far-reaching consequences. Gerry, of course, never sees the twist coming --- which sets up the book’s violent final confrontation --- though many readers will guess at least part of it. He has spent his whole life, both personal and professional, believing that he’s the one controlling the narrative. But in the end, the author finds himself in a situation that even he can’t write himself out of.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on June 25, 2021

Dream Girl
by Laura Lippman