Book Review by Bianca Blengino
The Lady in the Lake is a noir piece by Laura Lippman. The setting is the city of Baltimore in 1966, a time of shifting societal norms around race and gender. Madeline “Maddie” Schwartz makes her own change by leaving a seemingly happy marriage to create an independent passion filled life. She manages to get a job as an assistant at the newspaper by leveraging information about a missing murdered girl. Determined to become a newspaper reporter she sees the underreported story of a murdered black woman, Cleo Sherwood, as an opportunity to make her mark. In a field dominated by men, with few opportunities afforded to women, Maddie uses her intelligence and attractiveness to skillfully maneuver newsroom politics and to investigate the disappearance and murder of the Cleo.
The novel parallels Cleo’s story with Maddie’s. They both want more from life. Both are beautiful woman who have learned to use their looks to their advantage. The novel starts off intriguingly with the thoughts of Cleo. Cleo’s narrative is woven throughout the novel as she tells her own story, addressing Maddie in her thoughts. She sees Maddie as not being unsimilar to herself.
“I saw you once. I saw you and you noticed me because you caught me looking at you, seeing you. Back and forth, back and forth. Good looking women do that. Lock eyes, then look one another up and down. . . . You saw me, you tallied up the points. Who won?” (3)
Lippman accurately describes life in the 60’s. Neighborhoods were segregated. Career opportunities for woman and minorities were limited. Women were encouraged to marry rather than have careers. Gays remained closeted. Good girls didn’t have babies out of wedlock. It’s this setting that allows Lippman to develop Maddie’s character into one whose actions almost seem justified, and to advance the unfortunate notion of women in competition with each other. The female reporter Maddie reaches out to resents Maddie because she sees her as a woman who uses her beauty as a tool to move upward.
Lippman plays with point of view to emphasis the effects of Maddie’s encounters. Maddie’s narratives are told in the 3rd person point of view, but the narratives of the people she has an effect on are told in the first person. We as the reader are invited to see Maddie as others do. Beautiful, sexual and dangerous.
“That woman, the one who came asking questions about Cleo Sherwood, she was up to no good. I could smell the yearning on her, too, but there was no sweetness to it. She was like a car engine, revving, revving, revving, making noise, sending sparks out into the world. She wants to get somewhere. Trouble is, she doesn’t know where she wants to go. That’s what makes her dangerous.” (185)
In an interesting noir mashup, Maddie is both the investigator with her own moral code and the trope of a dangerous woman. She is determined, beautiful and highly sexual. She embarks on an illicit affair first when she was a teenager, and later with a black policeman when it was illegal. She uses people to satisfy her desires and advance her agenda. Unlike classic noir, Maddie doesn’t die or go to jail, but she does leave a wake of broken hearts behind her. And, unlike Cleo, who chooses love, Maddie sacrifices love for her career. In the end of the story, while Maddie feels wistful for what might have been, she’s relatively content with the life she has built.