Dream Girl by Laura Lippman

Reviewed by Harriet

Here on Shiny we’ve reviewed three of Laura Lippman’s novels, here, here and here. Two were standalones, and the third was part of a series featuring Baltimore private eye Tess Monaghan. In fact Tess actually puts in a brief appearance in Dream Girl despite the fact that it’s a standalone – just one example of the wit of this new novel, which, I’m confident to claim, is entirely different from anything she’s written before.

So – Dream Girl is the title of this novel, but it’s also the title of a novel written by the protagonist, successful novelist Gerry Anderson. And dreaming plays an important part in the plot, because for most of the time Gerry is not really sure if he’s asleep or awake. 

There is no clear demarcation between Gerry’s dreams and his fantasies, his not-quite-asleep and his not-really-awake. His brain chugs, stuck in a single gear, focused on one thought or one image. Tonight he feels he is revolving, ever so slowly, like the old restaurant on top of the Holiday Inn. Then he finds himself hanging from the minute hand of the clock in the neighbouring Bromo Seltzer tower, a Charm City Harold Lloyd, slipping, slipping, slipping. 

Lying in a rented hospital bed in his Baltimore flat, his badly broken leg suspended in the air, Gerry is heavily sedated. He worries about the medication, carefully administered by his nurse Aileen, but he’s checked the label and she’s giving him the right dose. His mind ranges around in his past: the places, the people, the ex-wives and mistresses. And he ponders on what caused his serious accident: a letter, from someone who never existed, a letter that has now disappeared. 

Gerry has moved back to his hometown from New York, where he’s lived for most of his adult life. He’s supposed to be writing another novel, but he’s completely stuck. His $1.7 million apartment has a floating staircase, and it’s down this that he has fallen, while looking for the mysterious letter, which purported to come from Aubrey, the dream girl of his novel. Now, more or less completely immobile, he relies entirely on Aileen during the night and his assistant Victoria during the day. The only positive aspect of the situation is that he can’t sit up to write: ‘he’s been looking for an excuse not to write, and here it is’. So he watches TV and thinks about his past, wondering all the time whether he’s succumbing to dementia as his mother did. The whole business with the letter exacerbates this anxiety – was there really a letter? Was it really from Aubrey – which is impossible…

Visitors are discouraged, but he’s very bored, so he rather unwillingly agrees to see his ex-mistress Margot. Needless to say she’s after some money – she’s ‘a shakedown queen, a good one….who has a genius for getting other people to look after her’. He manages to get rid of her, but she keeps coming back. Then he gets a call – ‘It’s Aubrey, Gerry’ – but when he asks Aileen to check the caller id, she says there’s been no call. Then something happens to Margot that involves a red-handled paperknife, and Gerry’s life swirls rapidly into deeper and deeper drug-fuelled confusion…

According to Lippman’s ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the novel, Gerry is based largely on herself: ‘This is a book about what goes on inside a writer’s mind and it is, by my lights, my first work of horror’. I honestly don’t believe I’ve ever read a fully-fledged horror novel, but I can of course see why she describes Dream Girl this way – you’ll find all the requisite tropes here. However, it’s also extremely funny, if you like black humour, anyway.  Funny and sad at the same time, largely because of what we learn about Gerry, his past, his self-deception, his infidelities. Though he’s an undoubtedly talented writer, he’s not a particularly nice person, but arguably does not deserve the catalogue of deception and punishment that he is forced to suffer. Or does he? In the final denouement, when all the mysteries are solved, a tiny thread that has popped up from time to time in the narrative finally emerges fully formed and Gerry understands what has been behind it all from the start.

Lippman is a writer of great intelligence, highly perceptive and with a fine ironic wit. In some of her novels she lets the reader see into the consciousness of several characters, but here, by necessity, the whole perspective is that of Gerry himself. So I suppose this qualifies as a psychological thriller, but Lippman as always transcends genre. I loved it.

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Harriet is one of the founders and editors of Shiny New Books.

Laura Lippman, Dream Girl (Faber & Faber, 2021). 978-0571369249, 320pp., hardback.

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