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Friday, June 3, 2016

Review of WILDE LAKE by Laura Lippman

3.5 Stars
I have read and enjoyed several of Lippman’s standalone novels.  This one is eminently readable but because of its many echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird, I found myself focusing more on finding comparisons than enjoying the narrative.

Luisa (Lu) Brant, the daughter of a former state’s attorney in Maryland, has moved back into her childhood home with her father after the death of her husband.  She has become the new state’s prosecutor for the county.  There are two timelines.  Lu (in first person narration) recollects growing up in Columbia; many of her memories are about the exploits of her older brother AJ and his group of friends.  Alternating sections are set in the present:  Lu prosecutes a homicide case in which a local misfit, Rudy Drysdale, is charged with the murder of a middle-aged woman.  Eventually the past and the present merge as secrets from the past are revealed to have a connection to the murder case.

The echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) begin with the first sentence.  TKAM opens with “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow” (7).  Wilde Lake (WL) begins with “When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident . . . ”.  In TKAM, Scout and Jem first meet their friend Dill “sitting looking at us” (11); in WL, AJ and Lu find Noel hiding in bushes spying on the Brant house.  (Dill was supposedly based on Truman Capote, so it is no surprise that Noel is a homosexual.)  Scout knows how to read when she starts school, as does Lu; both girls have difficulties with their first teachers.  Scout is motherless, her mother having died of a heart attack (10), and has no memories of her mother; Lu is in the same situation.  Scout describes her father Atticus as old:  “He was much older than the parents of our contemporaries” (93) and his hobby is reading.  Lu says her father is old and “Our father was not one for playing with us unless it was something brainy.”  The Finches have a neighbour, Miss Maudie, with whom Atticus has a friendship; her home burns down but she looks forward to having a smaller house with more yard for flowers (77).  Miss Maude in WL “seemed almost nonchalant about the damage being done. ‘I bought this place for the yard.’”   

Events are similar in the two books.  Scout beats up Walter Cunningham, a poor boy who makes her life difficult at school; Lu beats up Randy, who has “only two shirts that he alternates and even then, he always smells by Friday” and who teases her at school.  Walter has dinner with the Finch family and Scout mocks his eating habits, behaviour for which she is reprimanded; Lu receives a “tongue lashing” for making comments about Randy’s eating with his fingers.  Jem comes to his sister’s defense and Bob Ewell ends up dead. When Atticus thinks Jem may be charged with Ewell’s death, he insists that his son not be given preferential treatment:  “’Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open. . . . I don’t want anybody saying, ‘Jem Finch . . . his daddy paid a mint to get him out of that’” (276).  In WL, AJ defends someone and a man dies.  When there is an investigation, AJ’s father “wanted to be as transparent as possible, to avoid any accusations of favoritism.”  There is a rape in both books, each involving a poor girl whose bruises are on the right side of her face and whose father is left-handed.  In TKAM, Atticus has sympathy for the rape victim, and in WL, Mr. Brant also tries to protect her as much as possible.   There are similarities between the behaviour of Tom Robinson and that of Rudy Drysdale.  Scout holds her father in high esteem, just as Lu does her father.  Each protagonist learns some unpleasant truth about her father, though it is only in Go Set a Watchman that a grown up Jean Louise sees Atticus in a new light. 

I could go on and on.  Even phrases like “chiffarobe/chifforobe” and “white trash” are used in both books.  Both novels are coming-of-age novels which also examine racism, classism, and sexism.  The main difference between the two is that the latter has many family secrets whereas in TKAM, Atticus believes in honesty:  “’When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake.  But don’t make a production of it.  Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults, and evasion simply muddles ‘em’” (92).

My point is that there are so many similarities that they distract from Lippman’s book.   Lippman may have intentionally used TKAM as a framework, but her reliance seems excessive.  Given the title Wilde Lake, I could not help but remember Oscar Wilde’s comment that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.”  That is not to say that Wilde Lake is a mediocre book; it’s just that its many parallels with To Kill a Mockingbird make Wilde Lake seem too derivative.