Prom Mom by Laura Lippman

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Reviewed by Harriet

Amber typed her next query into Google: Amber Glass, Joe Simpson, Prom Mom, Cad Dad. Ah, here they were, the headlines and images she had fought so hard to erase from her memory and her life. But also: There was Joe in his tux, undeniably handsome. And, Amber had to admit to herself, undeniably miserable. Even before he knew how the evening would end, he wasn’t happy to be going to prom with her.

Here at Shiny we love Laura Lippman – this will be the fifth of her books we’ve reviewed, joining After I’m Gone (2014), Hush Hush (2016), Sunburn (2018) and Dream Girl (2021). She’s won multiple awards, and has been described by Stephen King as ‘the closest America has to Ruth Rendell’. Prom Mom is in some ways a quieter novel than the ones we’ve reviewed recently,  one that deals mainly in psychological suspense, though a crime committed some twenty years earlier is the nexus round which all the present-day events take place.

The wonderfully named Amber Glass is the Prom Mom of the title. When the novel begins, in May 1997, she is at the prom. She was thrilled to be invited by Joe Simpson, a boy she has a huge crush on, only to be devastated when he abandons her to dance with his ex-girlfriend. And what’s worse is that Amber develops stomach pains and has to retreat to her hotel room. Joe promises to check on her later, but, getting no reply to his knock, he wanders off. Amber, meanwhile, is in the midst of giving birth to a premature baby she didn’t even know she was expecting. When the dead baby is discovered, she is convicted of involuntary manslaughter and spends three years in an institution for juvenile offenders. 

Happily, in September 2019, Amber has made something of her life. After gaining a degree in French, she has moved to New Orleans and become a chef. But a surprise inheritance takes her back to Baltimore, her hometown, where she sets up a gallery specialising in outsider art, a long-time interest of hers. Joe is also living in Baltimore. He’s become a successful real estate agent, dealing in commercial property, and lives with his wife Meredith, a celebrated plastic surgeon, in a house worth around $2 million. Their marriage is a happy one, it seems, and Joe appears to be a devoted husband. They’ve never had children, by choice.

With Prom Mom and Cad Dad both back in Baltimore, a meeting is inevitable. Amber is curious to know how Joe’s life has turned out, but it’s Joe who seeks her out. Though a complete philistine, he fakes an interest in outsider art to call at the gallery, supposedly to buy a present for his wife. Naturally, one thing eventually leads to another and soon the two of them are sleeping together. Understandble, you might think, especially as Meredith seems rather a cold and unlikeable character. But Lippman doesn’t let you get away with quick judgments. Joe turns out to have another lover on the side, the sexy, clingy Jordan, who he’d love to dump but can’t quite think how. In fact he proves to be a real archetype of self deception:

Joe didn’t feel like he was at midlife, so how could he have a midlife crisis? He tried to be grateful, consciously grateful, every day. He wasn’t perfect; he still made mistakes. He could do better and he would, he promised himself. He would. The main thing is, he always tried to do his best. 

However, his sexual transgressions are not the only things he’s keeping from Meredith. When the disastrous effect of Covid on commercial property puts him in a dire financial situation, he not only hides this from her but also starts to seriously consider disposing of her in order to cash in her substantial life insurance. 

Of course when you see the dates covered by the novel, the pandemic was bound to make an appearance. Joe is in quite a quandary with two mistresses on the go, juggling bubbles and hoping nobody gets infected. I seriously wondered if he might consider using Covid as a weapon, something Lippman almost certainly intended you to do. But ultimately things go in a quite different direction, and there are huge surprises to come in the final pages.

So yes this is a quiet novel in some ways, definitely a slow burn, but it becomes a psychological thriller as the tension surrounding Joe and his entourage mounts up. Lippman brilliantly confounds the reader’s expectations as the novel delves deeper into the minds of the protagonists. It’s also a great example of her recurring interest in showing the cracks in middle-class American life. And of course the novel has a political dimension, with teenage pregnancy so much in the news in the US, and with Joe being a secret Trump supporter, yet another thing he conceals from his more liberal wife. A novel worth reading in so many ways.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Laura Lippmann, Prom Mom (Faber & Faber, 2023). 978-0571377107, 336pp., paperback original.

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