Gerald Andersen is pretty satisfied with his career as a novelist. Indeed, he’s pretty satisfied with everything about himself.
But one perennial question he gets from his adoring readers bugs him: Who was the real person who inspired Aubrey McFate, the enchanting title character in his most successful book, Dream Girl?
No one, he always says, even though he knows that “readers hated being told that anything in fiction wasn’t real.” She’s a pure product of his imagination, and it puts his nose out of joint every time someone insinuates he couldn’t possibly have created so convincing a female character.
Then Aubrey starts calling him on the phone.
That’s just one of Gerry’s rapidly escalating problems in Dream Girl — not his novel but the 26th one from bestselling author Laura Lippman.
Lippman is best known as a mystery writer, with a slew of awards (Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, etc.) and her most recent thriller, 2019′s Lady in the Lake, in development as an Apple+ series to star Natalie Portman and Lupita Nyong’o. An accomplished journalist before she turned to writing fiction, Lippman published a whip-smart essay collection, My Life as a Villainess, last year.
And with Dream Girl she makes her first foray into horror.
At 61, Gerry has made changes in his life. He recently sold his apartment in Manhattan and moved back to Baltimore, his hometown (and Lippman’s), to care for his mother, who suffered from dementia. She unexpectedly died days after he closed on a sleek new condo, but he decides to stay awhile, hoping new surroundings will help him get going on a stalled novel and get distance from a recent breakup with a glamorous “shakedown queen” named Margot.
That plan is upended, as is he, when he slips on the distressed concrete floor, trips over a rowing machine and tumbles down a floating staircase, landing on more distressed concrete (”f--k, distressed concrete, what a concept for a floor”), where he lies overnight unable to move until his assistant arrives in the morning.
His injuries are many, chief among them a “bilateral quad tear in his right leg. He needs to remain flat on his back for eight to twelve weeks in this hulking beast of a hospital bed. His injured leg is braced to keep it immobilized....”
Between the injuries and a heavy-duty regimen of pain and sleeping meds, Gerry is close to helpless, perched in the living room of his condo with one window on the outside world.
His care falls in the daytime to his assistant, Victoria, a woman in her 20s whom Gerry likes because she’s unambitious: “The worst assistants are the little vampires who try to turn an essentially menial job into a mentorship.”
At night, a stolid nurse named Aileen doles out the meds. She introduces herself by looking at Gerry’s packed, extensive custom bookshelves and telling him, “I hardly read at all.”
Wait, you say, this is reminding me of Misery. Yes indeed, Dream Girl is a nod to Stephen King’s horror classic, and maybe a bit to his Gerald’s Game, and a lot to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Lippman has a deliciously good time dropping allusions all over the book to a host of literary and pop culture works about the nature of fiction. Some she name-checks specifically, from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita to Philip Roth’s Zuckerman Unbound; others are fun to catch sight of fleetingly — is that the shadow of Barton Fink? She even gives Gerry a meta moment when he tries to hire a Baltimore private detective.
Another work laced through Dream Girl is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Just like Scrooge, Gerry revisits his troubled childhood and young adulthood in some chapters. But in Gerry’s dreams, or nightmares, or whatever they might be, the ghosts are less likely to wear robes than #MeToo T-shirts.
Gerry believes himself to be a nice guy, and he certainly doesn’t see himself as a misogynist. But the more time we spend in Gerry’s head, the more we notice.
He teaches college writing classes from time to time, and the only female students he notices or remembers are the gorgeous ones. The first of his three failed marriages crashed because his ex was “so jealous.” So okay, he had sex with a colleague once. Well, maybe twice. All right, three times.
And what male writer wouldn’t respond to some of those eager female fans? If a woman turns up at your hotel bar and accepts an invitation to your room, she couldn’t possibly have anything on her mind other than consensual sex, right?
Lippman seamlessly weaves all that literary play and feminist satire into a well-crafted horror story — I might have held my breath for the last 100 pages as one shock barreled into another, to the wonderfully twisted end.
Dream Girls has an unusual dedication, a long list of names, most of them authors who have, like Lippman, been faculty members at Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise program in St. Petersburg over the last 15 years: Andre Dubus III, Michael Koryta, Dennis Lehane, Peter Meinke, Stewart O’Nan, Les Standiford, Sterling Watson and more. Under the book’s spell, even though I know better than to confuse fiction and reality, I wondered: Could one of them be the person who inspired Gerry Andersen? They all seem so nice, but. ...
Look for the final twist in the author’s note.
By Laura Lippman
William Morrow, 310 pages, $28.99