During Covid it seemed to be hard for authors to know whether to refer to it or not and if so how. And even now, many authors are setting their action in 2019 or earlier so as not to have to deal with the pandemic. But there are plenty of authors who have tackled the issue and its impact on people even as the pandemic continued to rage Sarah Moss explored the lockdown in Britain in The Fell and Louise Erdrich chronicled the only lockdowns on a fictional bookshop (that might have been hers) but also the impact of the death of George Floyd in her novel The Sentence. Award winning crime author Laura Lippman has spent much of her career chronicling life in her native Baltimore so it is no surprise that her latest stand alone novel Prom Mom takes us to that city during the 2020 and 2021 lockdowns (and references other national events).
The book takes its name from its framing story, based on real events and one to which it keeps coming back, to ultimately devastating effect. That story is set in Baltimore in 1997 where Amber finds herself on her prom night alone in a hotel room, bleeding and in pain. It will turn out that she gave birth to a premature baby which died while the father, and her date, Joe, was chasing after his ex. Amber, who will end up going to jail for a short time, will be forever known as the Prom Mom and her date as the Cad Dad.
But the main action of the novel starts in 2019 when Amber returns to Baltimore from New Orleans to deal with the property of her late stepfather and on the spur of the moment, it seems, decides to open an art gallery in a small shopping mall. She immediately starts cyberstalking Joe who is now a successful property trader happily married (it seems) to plastic surgeon Meredith. Of course, being a Laura Lippman novel, nothing is quite as it seems. Amber inveigles her way back into Joe’s life only to discover that Joe is having an affair with the much younger, and hard to shake, Jordan. And then the pandemic strikes and things become both more complicated and simpler at the same time. Amber’s on-line businesses unexpected flourish but Joe’s investments are impacted, his secret liaisons become harder to manage and also potentially hazardous to his and Meredith’s health.
Readers’ patience with Prom Mom will probably depend on a few things. First is how willing they are to relive the pandemic in the company of fairly well off, upper to middle class Americans. Second, is how much they care about philandering Joe, who every woman seems to be throwing themselves at so that he ends up juggling three relationships, each a secret from the other two. There is not a lot of crime and not a lot of thriller here and although it does build to a dark fairly twisted ending it takes a long time to get there and it is hard to justify the journey.
Lippman is a great observer of people and that skill is clearly on show here. While Jordan is a little one note, the main trio of Amber, Joe and Meredith have interesting and sometimes conflicting inner lives, particularly with the ongoing reverberations from the tragic end to Amber and Joe’s schooldays continuing to haunt their lives. But it is the minutiae of Covid, while well observed (for example, the hunt for toilet paper) that slow this narrative down and drag it inexorably into the banal. So that while it is pitched as a thriller Prom Mom mostly fails to thrill.