Laura Lippman’s new essay collection, My Life as a Villainess, couldn’t be more timely. Given the selection this week of Kamala Harris as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, we’re in for three months of pundits droning on about her likability.
Lippman is here to serve us a cold, crisp, refreshing glass of why that’s nonsense.
Not that this is a book about politics. These are personal essays, witty and poignant and thoughtful, about Lippman’s life. One theme that runs through them is her hard-earned knowledge that many of the things our culture expects of women — likability among them — can be traps.
Many readers will be familiar with Lippman as an accomplished and bestselling author of crime fiction. She wrote the 12-book Tess Monaghan series, set in her native Baltimore, and another dozen standalone mystery novels, most recently Lady in the Lake. If you’ve attended the annual Writers in Paradise conference and readings at Eckerd College, you might have met her. She’s a longtime member of the conference faculty, an experience she writes about fondly in the essay My Brilliant Friend.
In the introduction to My Life as a Villainess, she tells us that its source was her decision in 2017 to challenge herself with other kinds of writing. She had a 20-year career as a journalist before she switched to writing fiction full time, and she knew her schedule didn’t have room for the research that long-form journalism requires.
So she tried her hand at the personal essay. In 2019, just before Mother’s Day, Longreads published her essay Game of Crones, which drew tens of thousands of reads. She thought her description of her life as “a very old, very unusual working mother” would be entertaining. “Instead,” she writes, “I was reminded that the more specific one is about one’s life, the more universal it can seem.”
Game of Crones, written when Lippman was 60, is one of the 15 essays in My Life as a Villainess, and it’s both entertaining and universal. Lippman is stepmother to a now-grown son, thanks to her marriage to TV showrunner David Simon (The Wire, Treme). Their daughter was born when Lippman was 51.
“My daughter didn’t come out of my body,” Lippman writes, but she’s a mother in every other way — even though, as she writes in the first line of the essay, her child was only “ten days old the first time I was asked if I was her grandmother.”
Her age isn’t the only thing unusual about her situation. She acknowledges that money makes many things easier: “To become a mother at age fifty-one is the entitlement cherry on the privilege sundae.” But Lippman is self-deprecatingly funny about motherhood, and age brings with it a confidence that serves her well. One of her pro tips, from the essay Tweety Bird: Don’t tweet sarcastically about the kid who’s bullying your daughter — you might get called to the principal’s office.
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Her confidence also shines in The Whole 60, which is about another nearly universal experience for women: dieting and its conjoined twin, body shaming. Lippman was born into a family of skinny people but wasn’t one herself. In high school, she tells us, she was “five-foot-nine and solid as a linebacker.”
That led to issues with eating that run through several of these essays, and much of her life. But she has an epiphany brought on by yet another diet ad: “What is new is that I have decided, at the age of sixty, that I am a g--d--- knockout.” And she starts to see other women that way, too.
Lippman writes about the early years of her journalism career and about the mystery of the lack of scientific knowledge about menopause. She recounts “stealing” her father’s favorite bar and reflects on the comfort of using his favorite kitchen gadget after his death.
The Thirty-First Stocking revolves around parenting and religion. Simon is Jewish, “the kind of Jew who says things like, ‘The synagogue I fail to attend must be conservative.’” Lippman didn’t convert when they married; she is “the kind of Protestant who says things like: ‘I don’t see the point of being non-observant in two religions.’” Yet religion becomes an issue once their daughter is born.
In two of the book’s most moving essays, Lippman writes with insight about the life cycles of friendships and the pain of seeing them end. The Art of Losing Friends and Alienating People explores how our relationships with friends are complicated by social media: “Social media is a hellscape. Social media is a place where people fake being successful when they are falling-apart messes. Social media, best I can tell, is exactly like life.”
A Fine Bromance begins as a meditation on how we react to celebrity deaths on social media, but its central subject is Lippman’s “friend-in-law” Anthony Bourdain. She and her husband were watching the chef, TV star and writer’s show a decade ago when Simon said, “I want to be his friend.”
Lippman brought them together, and they did become friends. Bourdain proved to be “very much the person one saw on TV — funny, profane, incredibly smart.” So for both her and Simon, his death by suicide in 2018 was devastating: “The eternal problem with suicide stories is that the people who have the answers are never here to provide them.”
The book’s final essay, Men Explain “The Wire” to Me, is at one level a hilarious riff on the mansplaining she has endured about her husband’s iconic TV series: “Yes, you Wire fanboy, the one in the back, the one in the flannel shirt with a man bun. No, the one in the blue flannel shirt.”
But it’s also a double history of the series and her marriage to Simon: “David was out of work when we began dating during the summer of 2000. I always like to state that for the record because people who don’t know our history tend to type me as a gold digger.”
My Life as a Villainess: Essays
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 270 pages, $27.99
Times Festival of Reading
Lippman will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Lippman, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to firstname.lastname@example.org.