I now know I have at least one thing in common with Laura Lippman: we both love TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. She reveals her reverence in every nuance of WILDE LAKE which in so many ways acts as a modern re-telling of the classic. There’s little things like the name of her patriarch (both have bird species as surnames) and the fact he is a single father with two children. Then there’s bigger things like a central story thread in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. And much more besides. I’ve found the kinds of books that pay such close homage to a revered classic more miss than hit over the years but WILDE LAKE falls on the successful side of that divide. One of the key reasons this is true is that the novel is equally readable for those who’ve never cracked the spine on a copy of Mockingbird (a fact relayed in the many glowing reviews from people who fall into that category).
In its own right WILDE LAKE explores some weighty social and moral issues against the backdrop of a crime story. Though even Lippman herself, in several interviews including this one on last year’s live episode of one of my favourite true crime podcasts Crime Writers On…, would agree that it’s not a rollicking, action-packed kind of tale. You do have to be patient and prepared to wander down some byways that have nothing whatsoever to do with whodunit or even why certain things were done. I rather like this kind of story but I know people who would tear their hair out at its apparent lack of focus.
The story – or stories – are complicated. Too much to even summarise here. But there is purpose to it all as Lippman explores the differences in culture and social attitudes between the two time periods. Which of the late 1970’s acceptable behaviours are still acceptable three decades later? Can hero status be retroactively stripped when seen through the lens of a different time? And when, pray tell, will believing a woman’s claims of rape be the default position for all who hear her cries? There are also, as those familiar with Lippman’s writing might expect, some very pointed digs at issues facing modern-day Baltimore.
The book is narrated in two distinct threads though each one by the same person. Or, I suppose, a version of the same person. Luisa (Lu) Brant is a precocious but friendless pre-teen when discussing growing up in the liberal, newly developed community of Columbia, Maryland during the 1970’s. Her father is well-respected if not deeply liked and the state’s attorney. He raises Lu and her older brother AJ with help from housekeeper-come-field-marshall Teensy in a manner that can only be described as distant. Though loving in its way and for its time. In the book’s other thread it is the present-day. Lu is 45, mother to twins and recently widowed. She has just become the first woman to win the job her father held with such distinction. Regardless of the book’s narrative structure Lu’s life is a continuous event so the two stories have many natural crossovers and while I wasn’t always sure the dual thread structure was the best choice for this story I had no trouble following them and did enjoy the juxtaposition of child and adult versions of the same person. I will admit to preferring juvenile Luisa by a country mile – she’s far less cocky and sure of herself – but both characterisations are deft.
We non-Americans are somewhat conditioned by our diet of American television, movies and all the rest to think we know the place but WILDE LAKE reminds us that what we see in pop culture isn’t nearly all there is. Some of the history and references here were completely alien to me and after my initial shock I was happily ‘researching’ (i.e. googling) whether Columbia’s origins were as depicted and several other plot elements. I liked that this book gave me a sense of a different America than the one I feel I know.
Though I liked a lot about this book I’d have to say I admire WILDE LAKE more than love it. Mostly this is, I think, due to my distaste for adult Lu. She is ambitious and competitive and if not mean then cold at times. I know it is these people who probably get things done in the world but I’m never going to be one of them or terribly comfortable in their presence and it’s hard for me to truly love a book in which there is a character I inherently dislike. But there’s also the fact that the book’s ending fell flat for me with it’s late coming to the fore of previously minor characters and revelations of things that had no business being kept secret – sometimes from the book’s characters and sometimes from readers – for so long. I still enjoyed much of the journey but for a book to be truly lovable – the kind I want to read again and insist that everyone I know read immediately – I need a satisfying conclusion. But admiration is still a darned good recommendation in my world and WILDE LAKE will definitely make you think.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher William Morrow 
Length 352 pages
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library