Looker; Laura Sims
Genre: Suspense/noir (more on this below)
Hogwarts House Recommendation: Slytherin
In this taut and thrilling debut, an unraveling woman, unhappily childless and recently separated, becomes fixated on her neighbor-the actress. The unnamed narrator can’t help noticing with a wry irony that, though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment lies between them. The actress, a celebrity with her face on the side of every bus, shares a gleaming brownstone with her handsome husband and their three adorable children, while the narrator, working in a dead-end job, lives in a run-down, three-story walk-up with her ex-husband’s cat.
When an interaction with the actress at the annual block party takes a disastrous turn, what began as an innocent preoccupation spirals quickly, and lethally, into a frightening and irretrievable madness. Searing and darkly witty, Looker is enormously entertaining–at once a propulsive Hitchcockian thriller and a fearlessly original portrayal of the perils of envy.
With a tough separation and the inability to carry children, an unnamed narrator finds herself alone and judged harshly by the neighbors. She does what she can to stay afloat, from beginning a flirtationship with a student where she teaches to watching a famous neighbor of hers and avoiding the judgmental ones, like Mrs. H. But as things begin to take a turn for the worst, the narrator slips deeper into despair. Fantasizing about the famous next-door neighbor probably doesn’t help, nor does sinking deeper into a new relationship.
You’ll notice I did something different and included two summaries. That’s because this little book I was promised was quite different from the book I actually got. Oddly, this is the third time this year the summaries have mislead me somewhat significantly. This was a marketing misfire in that the actress is a very minor part of the story, and it resulted in a bit of a disappointing book, unfortunately. You’ll notice my summary is pretty unfocused and lacks the actress.
Our MC, who is nameless, is supposed to be unlikable to show us how envy can ruin lives. So is the actress she envies, which was an interesting touch. She really is not. In fact, she’s almost a sympathetic character. I feel like it’s like this: Imagine you’re sitting down to watch Jim Carrey’s Grinch movie. You’re excited to see such an exciting villain come to life. To see him truly unravel. But when it comes down to it, the Grinch has really done nothing wrong. In fact, everyone around him is such a greedy, horrible—well, grinch, I guess—that you start to realize that he is almost justified in his actions. You have this poor young Grinch wanting to make friends, but everyone is so cruel and condescending and over the top that that’s clearly not happening.
It’s the same idea in this novel. And the actress plays such a minor role (no pun intended) in the story that it’s hard to ever see the narrator unravel to begin with. And wow, what a horrible judgmental community she is stuck with! Almost every woman she meets has a rude remark for her about not having children; even her husband presumably leaves her for it. It was a little unrealistic. Twenty pages in, it’s feeling more like a feminist treatise on how childless women are treated, something I really wasn’t expecting in a story that’s supposed to be about the obsession with an actress. (She also goes on anti-men rants, which really didn’t belong.) I get that something had to happen for the MC’s life to come apart, but geez. If you want to write about women’s issues, more power to you, but there was too much of a focus on them in the beginning and then they never make an appearance again. The topic is presented in such an in-your-face way that it didn’t make sense. It should have been a different book.
Then we press on and the book switches gears from feminism to the MC’s affairs. Reeling from her impending divorce, she turns to a student for comfort. Together, they enter a weird relationship with predictable consequences. I’m still not sure what that has to do with the themes of the book and her obsession of the actress. Instances of the narrator watching the actress are there, but they’re not hugely prevalent. Most of the actress’ scenes are those of the MC watching and just thinking about her. Sometimes the scenarios she devises are interesting, but when almost literally nothing happens or comes of it, it’s pointless.
So where is the obsession with the actress in all this? Finally, in the last 25%, the book mostly…mostly…focuses on the actress. Mostly in side scenes in the background. To be fair, I did enjoy some of the MC’s observations on her life and how she imagined themselves sharing life together. I just wish there was a lot more, especially in the first half. I should also mention that none of these loose ends get tied up. So….I guess the boring subplots just went nowhere.
To sum up, side plots were necessary to show the MC’s current life, but there was way too much of a focus on them. And speaking of the MC, she is…standard. We have seen her in many places before. To give you an idea: her hobby of choice is drinking wine, she spends most of her time alone, and…that’s really about it, but the problem again is that she doesn’t have much of a personality. I did like the writing style of the novel, poetic and noir-ish. Nor was she unrelatable; I can definitely feel her need to be liked and her desire to be friends with someone interesting and that was where the book hit home for me. But other characters don’t make any sense, particularly a neighbor who seems to read the MC’s thoughts (not sure how she knew that the MC was watching the actress??) and then does a 360 personality change by the end of the story.
Now for the mysterious genre category. Looker is marketed as a thriller, and that’s barely true. This was not thrilling, save for about thirty seconds at the end. There was a touch of suspense with lots of dark, psychological tones, sure. But it’s not a thriller. In fact, this was almost my 2nd DNF of the year. Why? Well, the first 75% is watching our MC miss her husband. She daydreams. She cleans the bathroom. She thinks. There is a LOT of “thinking” to be done here, which doesn’t really add up to a riveting story. And it kept going. And going. We are literally just watching her be depressed for many pages and almost nothing of note happens until near the end of the book. It was one of the dullest novels I’ve read in a while. (That “disastrous” turn at the block party between her and the actress doesn’t seem to happen.) There are ten pages of thrilling action–count em, ten. And these pages aren’t very big. There’s another freaky scene, too, but it doesn’t last long. To be honest, those pages were interesting. But was it worth reading 170 pages of humdrum tasks like cleaning the house and thinking to get to those ten pages? I’m not sure.
This novel’s problem was that it was 170 pages of filler (well, 150, I guess, because background was needed). This author just couldn’t seem to find a focus. Still, to give the book credit, the ending wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be and it was an interesting finale. There just needed to be more leading to it. However, readers who like dark undertones and a film noir aesthetic, and don’t mind a book that simply exists to set a mood might appreciate it a little more. It wasn’t for me and quite honestly, it was pretty dull. So I personally can’t recommend this.