The basic theme of this big novel is surprisingly simple, but forceful nonetheless: Even smart, tough women can be fooled; some of them survive; some do not.
Exhibit A of the women who do not is Bobette Frisch, a fifty-something businesswoman who had built up a small empire of three bars and two apartment buildings. She collected their receipts daily, in person, and was known as a no-nonsense, unimaginative solid citizen. Bobette did have an imaginative side, however, that she hid in the fussily feminine decor of her home and the all-purple tones of her bedroom. It was as if all her life Bobette had been waiting for the right man to find her inner sanctum and sweep her away. When she meets Norman Torkelson via a personals ad, she apparently decides he is the one. But Norman is a con man who romances lonely middle-aged women, then disappears with their money. Usually all they lose is their life savings, but Bobette loses her life.
Whether she was murdered because she had last-minute doubts about Norman or because Norman's girlfriend Mary feared he really would marry his latest mark, forms the heart of the mystery. But it is not central to the theme. Bobette was not nearly as smart or tough in matters of the heart as her public persona would indicate. She paid with her life.
The protagonist, Lee (nee Lily Rose) White, is an aggressive and successful criminal defense lawyer. In getting to her midlife success, though, she also has been fooled repeatedly in matters of the heart. There were minor disappointments like most people have: realizing that her bright, genial husband would never become a hotshot attorney; choosing a "perfect" house on Long Island only to learn that her husband and father had already bought it for her. But Lee took these disappointments very hard; she felt that her husband was pressuring her to move from exciting Manhattan back to Long Island, so they could live a "normal" suburban life.
When her daughter is three years old, Lee discovers she has been fooled even more hurtfully. Her husband Jazz is having an affair. Worse, it is with her sister Robin, whom he is now determined to marry. Whether Lee's earlier reactions helped create this last, biggest betrayal is another mystery, one left for the reader to decide. In any event, after the divorce Lee breaks off contact with her parents as well as with Jazz and Robin.
By telling the whole story in Lee's voice, the author presents Jazz as a shallow, amoral man who chose his wife's sister as a lover so he could retain his position in the now-prospering White family and in its fur business. An alternate reading, which is at least as plausible, based on Jazz's own actions, is that he is a "nurturing male" with a drive to provide emotional as well as material support to the woman in his life. When Lee not only rejects such support but disparages him for his laid-back, nurturing traits, it is almost inevitable that he becomes drawn to her sister, who is very emotionally "needy."
In her professional life, Lee takes pride in her toughness. She knows most of her clients are guilty, even when they think their stories will fool her. Her job is simply to get them the best deal she can. Knowing that Norman Torkelson is a master con artist, she feels immune to his charm. She is not emotionally needy in the same way as the women who answer his ads. What she does not count on is his uncanny ability to spot what does motivate her. He very subtly, appeals to her sense of justice, her thoroughness in checking evidence and mentally working out all the alternate scenarios that could fit. As a result, Lee gets him sprung from jail and his girlfriend arrested for the murder. Norman is out of town and gone to ground several days before Lee realizes what has happened.
This sequence of being fooled, which takes up half the novel, is not so traumatic to Lee as her personal disappointments. Her life was never in danger, nor even her reputation as a good defense attorney. Her colleagues assure her that every lawyer, even the best, makes mistakes. Still, her pride is hurt. She broods a bit, but is soon back at work, thinking she is one of the lucky ones who learns from experience.
Some other characters illustrate the same theme. Holly Nunez, the Assistant DA who is Lee's opposite number on the case, is also flummoxed twice by Norman's tricks. She is just as tough and determined as Lee, if less personally involved, and she manages to turn these events to her own use. She ends up winning the next election for District Attorney, on the basis of being willing to admit to a mistake.
It is also possible to detect a somewhat off-center theme of family in both halves of the story. Most of its characters' families come from dysfunctional families, or at least so they believe. Later on, they seek out or try to create a substitute that provides the love and security they most need. This is what Lily does when left in the big house with Kent and her daughter Val. She builds a part-time unconventional family from friends, colleagues, and employees. Likewise, Mary Dean is trying to build a semblance of family for herself, and she stays with Norman because he is the only man who has offered her respectability and a kind of love. Helping with his cons is just a down payment on her dreams of future domestic bliss.
Despite the mystery plot which is set squarely in the midst of the criminal justice system, no big themes emerge about crime, justice, or their relation to society. Most defendants whom Lee represents are guilty and get as good or better justice than they deserve. Nor do the gritty scenes in jail rooms prompt any larger message about prison conditions or reform. Everyone, including inmates and their lawyers, just wants to get away from them as fast as possible.
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