Listening to Maria Hummel’s Still Lives shortly after Megan Miranda’s All the Missing Girls (2016), I realized I’d stumbled onto a contemporary microgenre. Here’s how it goes.
An intelligent, highly attractive, and modest-to-a-fault woman in her late 20s (not quite 30, it’s precisely specified) is getting over a breakup. It’s recent enough to still hurt, but not so recent that she couldn’t, say, compete on The Bachelor. Her ex has taken up with some hottie, who early in the novel goes missing and is feared dead. Cops swarm over the ex, who’s obviously a prime suspect — but they’re oddly circumspect with the protagonist, who as a jealous ex should also be squarely in their sights.
What does our heroine do in the face of this tragedy? She decides to rekindle the spark, and rush to the defense of her ex, who she’s convinced is innocent and has been framed. In the service of this goal, she engages in all manner of activity that’s sketchy at best and illegal at worst. By the end of the book, she herself is in mortal danger. You think?
Clearly there are people who will risk their safety and freedom for someone they’re involved with, even if they’ve been wronged in the past. That’s so twisted, though, that a book about such a relationship should really be about that relationship — not just use it as a plot convenience. What do I know, though? I’m just a critic.
The similarities between the books are all the more uncanny given that their settings are so different. All the Missing Girls takes place in a small southern town, whereas Still Lives is set at the apex of the L.A. art world circa 2003. The title is also the name of an exhibition by an artist named Kim Lord. She’s taken up with the art-dealer ex of Maggie, the character who narrates the book in the present tense.
Is Kim Lord into landscapes? Geometric sculptures? Mixed-media assemblages of cinder blocks and fake plants? Of course not. She’s a high-concept painter who’s been researching famous cases of murdered women (think Nicole Brown Simpson), posing as the victims and painting self-portraits: sort of a basic-cable Cindy Sherman. Is she herself destined for a similar fate? Does Andy Goldsworthy piss in the woods?
Hummel has some things to say about our fascination with murdered women and the way their killers rob not just their lives, but their legacies. She also has a theory of the market’s art-world influence that Maggie thinks is positively horrifying, though it’s only what sociologists have been saying for the past several decades. Whatever might have come of those themes, though, is swamped by the sluggishly plotted mystery, the pacing of which gives us plenty of time to dwell on just how ludicrously self-destructive Maggie’s actions are.
At least the exposition surrounding Lord’s disappearance, which involves us being introduced to a Christie-like panoply of potential suspects in the various departments of the museum where Maggie works, distracts Hummel from her cringeworthy meditations on identity. For example: “You don’t come from a haunted people,” says a character of Vietnamese descent. “I do.”
Then there’s this passage, about the dating lives of college-educated gen-X women.
We are pioneers in the brave new land that feminism and birth control have opened: sexually free, unencumbered by kids, able to pay our own way. We don’t exactly need men, and they get this and maybe bank on it, in a way that their fathers couldn’t. We support each other through their departures, and watch our age tick higher. Some of us marry our jobs. Some of us date women instead.
Oh, is that how being gay works? It’s what you do when you just can’t handle the ennui of heterosexual hookups?
Still Lives lost me long before Maggie, pursued by a potentially homicidal stalker, drove to the exact worst place she could have chosen to hide — and then immediately stripped naked, just for the hell of it. Even a tragically abbreviated climax set in a private sculptor garden (the weatherproof steel of a Serra sculpture is caressed far more tenderly than any human being in this book) couldn’t perk things up.
Audiobook narrator Tavia Gilbert is miscast, though the logic of tapping her slightly husky Kathleen Turner voice for a Los Angeles noir is understandable. Gilbert’s intelligence and maturity interacts oddly with Maggie’s weird naiveté: it’s like when Margot Kidder couldn’t figure out that Clark Kent was Superman. At least she got some freshly-squeezed orange juice out of the deal.