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I read much of Baltimore crime novelist Laura Lippman’s first book of essays, My Life as a Villainess, while casually sipping a Natty Boh. This felt appropriate—Lippman is famously attached to Baltimore, her hometown, for one. But the book really is a beer-on-the-beach read, if you can safely make it to the beach during the pandemic; it’s unchallenging, pleasant, and enjoyable. In the essay collection, Lippman writes about being a working mother, the ethics of hiring a nanny, and choosing happiness over a marriage that seems fine on paper, among other topics. None of the essays are revolutionary, but they’re not trying to be.
There are, though, a few great hits. Her essay about being a 60-something mom of an elementary schooler, pulled from a popular 2019 piece she published in Longreads, is no-nonsense, honest, and infused with a huge dose of heart and vulnerability. Her behind-the-scenes look at watching her husband, David Simon, create and run The Wire, titled “Men Explain The Wire to Me,” is a funny, edifying, and rightfully acerbic piece on watching your spouse ascend to the—literal, according to the MacArthur Foundation—pedestal of genius. Everything in the middle of those two bookending achievements goes down easy, like a cold Natty. Lippman’s hang-ups about class create some hiccups, like when she writes, “My husband and I are solidly middle-class people no matter what our tax return says.” The rest of the book is full of gestures at just how much money Simon brings home and what it makes possible for the couple in a way that’s hardly “middle-class.”
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That kind of self-conscious dishonesty about wealth is a shame, because in the book’s best spots, Lippman is refreshingly honest about herself and her shortcomings as a wife, mother, and friend. Things really get going when she allows herself to be a “villainess” without much throat-clearing—as the essays progress, she loses some of the self-consciousness about personal writing that she worries about in the introduction and becomes unapologetically frank, whether she’s describing herself as attractive without blushing or admitting that she ended her first marriage because she no longer wanted to be married to him, not because her then-husband did anything egregious. When she writes about the fallout of a tweet about her daughter’s school bullies, she doesn’t apologize for the action that sparked the essay—she just follows it into the breach. She holds back on name-dropping some of her extremely famous friends, but lets others slip, even though she wryly notes that she knows how it looks. Lippman has the wisdom to see that some people will see her as a villainess no matter how good she tries to be. Why not have some fun where she can?
What is frustrating, however, are the inconsistencies in the book’s editing. Because many of the essays that appear in My Life as a Villainess were previously published, the timeline jumps around from piece to piece without warning; family members who are referred to in the present tense in one essay are long dead in the next, and the age of Lippman’s daughter keeps changing. (Lippman lightly addresses these inconsistencies in the acknowledgements, where she explains that her daughter’s name is present in an early essay and truncated to an initial later because her philosophy on publicly naming her child changed over time. Still, a dash of retconning—or clearer dates on essays—could have made for a better reading experience.)
For readers of Lippman’s crime fiction, working parents, or anyone who’s tried to balance their creative life with their spouse’s, My Life as a Villainess will be a breezy and fun read. Personally, I’m still waiting on the waylaid Pogues jukebox musical she’s writing with Simon and George Pelecanos: In a footnote, she dryly remarks that it’s entering its 10th year of production.