Edan Lepucki Returns with Woman No. 17

When Edan Lepucki hit the literary scene with her debut novel, California, in summer 2014, she was fortunate enough to be featured on Stephen Colbert’s show. The feature catapulted her novel to the third slot on the New York Times bestseller list on the week it went on sale. Her interview happened to fall in the middle of a feud between Amazon and her then-publisher, Hachette. In the conversation, Colbert encouraged his viewers to buy California from Powell’s Books, in an effort to prove that a smaller retailer could compete against Amazon and help an author debut as a bestseller. In doing so, Colbert turned a literary debut into a unicorn.

The success of California is more than a lucky mention on a hit show. Edan Lepucki’s prose and insights about her characters are hard-hitting and self-assured, compelling and thoughtful. When I picked up the audio of her second novel, Woman No. 17, I knew I would experience the richness of her prose again. What I didn’t expect was how much I’d love the story, of a recently separated mother of two who hires an au pair to care for her younger son while the mother writes her memoir.

Read by the extraordinary combo of Cassandra Campbell and Phoebe Strole, the novel follows the mother, Lady, and S (the au pair, neé Esther) as S’s connection to Lady’s older son, Seth, becomes too close for comfort. Seth, who refuses to speak, creates challenging questions for Lady as she struggles to be a patient and tolerant parent. A tellingly uncomfortable moment in the novel occurs when Lady introduces S to Seth. Amid the nonverbal awkwardness, Lady recalls a conversation with her agent, Joyce, who “claimed that the central theme of my memoir was acceptance, but if that were the case, I shouldn’t be writing it.”

Campbell’s characterization effortlessly captures the haughtiness of the matriarch of a rich LA family while somehow voicing her conflicts as human and real. Strole also does an excellent job as S, a buoyant young woman who has intriguing motivations of her own.

Listen to an excerpt Woman No. 17