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My Life as a Villainess

April 1, 2023

I read My Life As a Villainess, by Laura Lippman, after years of reading Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels, most of them set in Baltimore. I used to keep a Monaghan mystery in my bedside table for a rainy day, but enough of them came along that I eventually finished the series.

After I finished Hush, Hush in March, the very last Tess Monaghan mystery, I started looking around for other books by Lippman. I love this author who writes murder mysteries but throws in a reference to another book while a character is describing a playroom: “While the rest of the house was her father’s design, this had been her mother’s creation, inspired by a book she had read as a child, a book she had planned to share with Alanna and Ruby when they were older. But by the time they were older, their mother was gone, so Alanna never did find out in what children’s book the kids played in something called the Office.”
The answer is left up to the reader. It left me wondering why Alanna didn’t read widely enough to discover the answer for herself–in a fairly well-known children’s book called The Four-Story Mistake.

Anyway, I decided to read Lippman’s book of essays, where I discovered that an essay I already knew and loved, “The Whole 60,” is first in the volume. My Life As a Villainess was published in 2020 so you may have missed the publicity for it, as I did (different places are trying to catch up on publicity in different ways; just this week I attended a reception for Kenyon authors who had a book published 2019-2021).

In her preface to the volume, Lippman writes a good defense of the personal essay: “I had thought my experiences were so bizarre that they would function as amusement for ‘normal’ people. Instead, I was reminded that the more specific one is about one’s life, the more universal it can seem.” I remember Jo Walton saying something like this after her semi-autobiographical novel Among Others came out.

The title comes from Lippman’s divorce from “the one person who had encouraged me to follow my dreams, to write that first book.” She says that “when I sat down to start my eighth novel, I knew something new about venality—my own. I realized that somewhere in Texas, where my ex had settled, a person woke up every day and cursed me as a villain. Well, probably not cursed and probably not every day. That’s a little self-aggrandizing. But, to the extent that he did think of me, it was in the shape of a most unflattering narrative. I loved her, I believed in her and then, just as she was on the verge of becoming successful, she left me. I had become the bad guy in someone else’s story.”

Maybe because Lippman is almost exactly my age, I like her reasoning about social media. She says “I am well aware of everything that’s wrong with Facebook and Twitter. I have seen my friends abused. I understand the misuse of our date, the extremities of cancel culture, the lack of nuance, the echo chambers we create within our online communities.” But she also says “it’s hard to do right by all the good people I know. There are so many people I love that I haven’t even spoken to in the past year, unless social media exchanges count as speaking. Isn’t that part of getting old, too? Amassing so many friends that you can’t keep up with them?”

I like that she occasionally crafts a sentence that strikes me as good material for an aphorism, like “Motherhood is a story where I don’t control the ending.”

I like that she argues against conventional thinking. Here’s my favorite part of my favorite essay by Lippman, “The Whole 60”: “Everyone knows old women are disgusting. I recently listened to an NPR show—NPR!—with a series of punch lines about granny panties, Angela Lansbury, and what was intended to be a gross-out image of an old woman in a crotchless thong. Every day, everywhere I go, the culture is keen to remind me how repulsive I am.
I thump the culture on the chest, push back, and say one of the most infuriating things a woman can ever say: Actually I like the way I look.”

Do you like the way you look? Have you ever read anything by Laura Lippman?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2023 9:14 am

    I have never read anything by Laura Lippman but she’s on my list now for sure! Thanks!

    • April 4, 2023 9:59 am

      My pleasure! I’ve enjoyed reading her mysteries ever since I lived near Baltimore (30 years ago).

  2. April 1, 2023 1:32 pm

    I’ve thought of reading her mysteries but just haven’t gotten around to them yet. I confess that just this morning I thought “well, it’s time to get some color put in my hair again.” I am not religious about it, and I certainly don’t mind a few grays. But every now and then it starts to bother me. I love that last section you shared. People do love to make fun of older women (at best) and be repulsed by them. Men don’t really have to put up with that sh*t. Look at George Clooney or Daniel Craig… men can still be considered sexy in their 50’s and 60’s.

    • April 4, 2023 10:02 am

      I read her mysteries for years but just recently discovered how much I agree with almost everything she says in her essays.
      For some older women, no longer being considered “sexy” is a relief, but that doesn’t mean the pendulum has to swing all the way to “repulsive.”

  3. April 2, 2023 5:43 am

    I didn’t know this author but now I have to rectify that! Thanks for sharing!

  4. April 3, 2023 1:33 pm

    I too have never read anything by Lippman, but both the essays and the mysteries sound interesting.
    I’m 55 and I feel comfortable in my body and like how I look. I’m probably happier in my body that I was when I was younger.

    • April 4, 2023 10:04 am

      I admire your ability to feel comfortable in your body and like how you look. I have a very long way to go to even approach that; right now I’m working on liking my body enough to give it healthy food.

  5. April 3, 2023 4:06 pm

    I do like the way I look and I have never read anything by Lippman. Her essays sound like a lot of fun though.

    • April 4, 2023 10:06 am

      I admire that you have managed to find a way to like the way you look. I think it’s rare.
      The essays really are a lot of fun; she doesn’t pull her punches.

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