In And When She Was Good, Laura Lippman gives us Helen/Heloise. Helen comes from an unhappy home where her father was emotionally and sometimes physically abusive and her mother always sided with him, leaving Helen to fend for herself. As a teenager, Helen ends up in a bad relationship, and in dealing with it and trying to extricate herself, she falls into prostitution. Though she’s under the control of a wrathful pimp, whom she also loves, Helen finds she’s got quite a talent in the industry. Most girls burn out quickly, but Helen manages to stay afloat and even thrive. She’s on a quest to better herself and sneaks books to read, going to impressive lengths in order to get herself a library card.
Then she finds out that she’s pregnant and that changes everything. It’s incredibly difficult and expensive to raise a kid in today’s world, and in Helen’s case, it’s even harder as she has no education or real work skills to fall back on. And of course, she wants her son to have the best of what she never had. Once her pimp is in jail and Helen has him safely off her back, she sets up a business under his guidance, where she provides an upscale escort service to Washington DC and Baltimore’s elite.
It’s illegal, but Helen has done this before and carefully assembles this business to make a new life for herself. She changes her name to Heloise, selects a beautiful house in the suburbs to live in, and engages in the compartmentalization that seems so necessary for sex workers—a Sandy in real life but Starr onstage and when in the club, with different personalities to match. This is the part that I find so interesting, because though we live in a world where, theoretically, everyone is equal and should be able to earn equal pay for the same skills, a woman can almost always make more money using her body rather than her mind. It’s an equalizer, I guess, if a woman is blessed with looks and at ease with her body, but even that power has been taken away from her since prostitution is only legal in Nevada and there is such a taint to the world’s oldest profession.
According to Heloise, prostitution is one of those crimes that are incredibly hard to prove, perhaps because so much of the supposed crime is based on nuance. It all depends on how you say it and if you name the act, which the smart madams and their employees never do. Where madams have been busted before is in filing their taxes. Lippman’s character Heloise is obsessive about her taxes, receipts, and records, and the process of how Heloise deals with the financial side of her business is described in loving detail. I hate taxes and anything to do with finances, so an author that can actually write about this in a profound way and use it as an important plot point is pretty impressive. The amount of information given almost seems like a good how-to for madams-to-be who want to get into the business.
I really wanted to like this book wholeheartedly and there are parts of it I adore. In the end, though, I found that the subplot of a murdered madam and former sex worker muddied what was an exceptional character study. Maybe some of my disappointment is because there is no easy solution or answer for sex workers and so their stories will always feel incomplete and unfair. Reading And When She Was Good, I couldn’t help but get het up about issues that the book raised: Why is prostitution illegal but what semi-celebrities have done by dropping sex tapes to secure their fame and fortune is not? And what is a happily ever ending for a sex worker? The only stories I know end badly—Heidi Fleiss ends up in prison, then addicted to drugs and on Celebrity Rehab. There’s Boogie Nights, where everybody’s screwed up by the end. And I don’t feel like I can count Pretty Woman as a contender for a real-life story about a prostitute. So though the ending of And When She Was Good doesn’t ring true for me, I still think it’s an important book about women, women’s issues, and prostitution.