Novelist Edan Lepucki is fascinated by motherhood. In her acclaimed debut, California, pregnancy in a dystopian community threatens a couple’s survival. And in her latest novel, Woman No. 17, mothers and daughters quarrel to destructive ends.
Woman No. 17 introduces Lady, a wealthy mother of two boys: toddler Devin and teenager Seth. Seth is mute and has never met his father, who left Lady and her infant son years before.
“The actual first seed of the novel was when my son was 15 months old and he wasn’t speaking yet,” Lepucki says in an interview with Paste. “Everyone told me he would speak, he would speak, but I started thinking about what it would be like to have a child who didn’t speak and what that relationship between mother and child would be like.”
Like Lepucki, Lady is also a writer. While working on a memoir about Seth’s disability, Lady hires S, a recent graduate with a passion for art, to help with childcare. Both women are haunted by complex relationships with their mothers. Lady’s mother was overbearing yet emotionally cold, and she kept Lady’s father out of the picture through manipulation. S’s mother proves loving and cruel by turns, prone to verbally abusing S when she’s had too much to drink.
Lady and S go to two extremes as they grapple with their mothers’ influence, creating a captivating study in intergenerational relationships. Lady hasn’t spoken to her mother in over a decade, but S is unable to severe ties with her own mother. Instead, S begins a challenging art project in which she attempts to become
her mother. Even taking the nanny job is part of the effort, and the S that Lady gets to know is actually a recreation of S’s mother rather than S’s true self.
Lepucki explains that she has had a longstanding interest in how people react to toxic family relationships. “I’m obsessed with what it’s like to inherit familiar dynamics that aren’t healthy, and how we repeat things,” she says. “It’s such a specific element of humanity, but I wonder if generationally we deal with it in different ways. “
The lines between what is healthy and unhealthy are blurred in Woman No. 17. On one hand, S’s desire to understand her mother appears less reactionary than Lady’s complete isolation. But on the other, S’s decision to turn her mother-daughter relationship into performance art seems voyeuristic and perverse. While Lady lacks the self-awareness to see that she’s repeating her mother’s behavior, S’s faux extreme awareness is jarring.
Although Lepucki didn’t set out to write a “motherhood” novel, the book succeeds in interrogating the boundaries in parent-child relationships. “As a parent, you should learn early on that your child is a wholly independent person,” Lepucki says. “They do things you don’t want them to do.”
But that sword cuts both ways; Seth, like many kids, doesn’t always see his mother as a whole being outside of his own relationship with her. “Children do not take into account their parents,” Lepucki explains. “You see people tweeting funny things their dad said. They obviously didn’t ask their dad, and the tone is very, ‘Oh he’s my dad or she’s my mom. I can represent them however I want to.’”
S, while obsessed with accurately representing her mother, is also intrigued by women’s lives pre-motherhood. She undertakes a project wherein she asks people to send pictures of their moms before they had children. It’s reminiscent of a project Lepucki herself is doing, and it underscores the book’s focus motherhood as an identity. For Lepucki, the photos are fascinating glimpses of the past that enrich our parents’ narratives.
“I have always loved pictures of my mother from long ago, and I feel like other daughters have the same affection for those photographs,” Lepucki says. “The photos help us understand ourselves. ‘This is Mom at 21, and I’m in my 30s, so [the Mom in the photo and I are] closer in age than my mother and I are.’ So it’s like this person can tell me who I am now and who I will turn into. And it helps remind us that the person in the photo is the same person who is our mother.”
The photos both S and Lepucki collect highlight a time before each parent’s identity was supposedly subsumed by one life-changing facet of her story; each woman is at once a different person and the same person in the photo. “Sometimes we don’t really see our mothers,” Lepucki says. “It’s easy to forget that your mom is complicated and all these things other than your mother, and these photos remind you that she has multitudes.”
With Woman No. 17, Lepucki has succeeded in revealing a simple truth: mothers are human—flawed and difficult and impossible to hold at arm’s length.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.