Originally published in 2021
Injured in a freak fall, novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his glamorous high-rise apartment, dependent on two women he barely knows: his incurious young assistant, and a dull, slow-witted night nurse.
Then late one night, the phone rings. The caller claims to be the “real” Aubrey, the alluring title character from his most successful novel, Dream Girl. But there is no real Aubrey. She’s a figment born of a writer’s imagination, despite what many believe or claim to know. Could the cryptic caller be one of his three ex-wives playing a vindictive trick after all these years? Or is she Margot, an ex-girlfriend who keeps trying to insinuate her way back into Gerry’s life? And why does no one believe that the call even happened?
Isolated from the world, drowsy from medication, Gerry slips between reality and a dreamlike state in which he is haunted by his own past: his faithless father, his devoted mother; the women who loved him, the women he loved.
And now here is Aubrey, threatening to visit him, suggesting that she is owed something. Is the threat real or is it a sign of dementia? Which scenario would he prefer? Gerry has never been so alone, so confused – and so terrified.
It’s Aubrey, Gerry. We need to talk. About my story, about what really happened between us, that mess with your wife. I think it’s time the world knows I’m a real person.
I have been eager to get my hands on a copy of Laura Lippman’s Dream Girl ever since I first read the synopsis so the moment my copy arrived it went straight to the top of my To Read pile. That is partly a reflection of how much I had enjoyed Sunburn, my first experience of Lippman’s writing which I read just about a year ago, but also because the themes it promised to discuss – the creative process, the boundaries between reality and imagination and the publishing world seemed intriguing. I am happy to say that this proved to be a good choice as I found myself devouring the book in just one day.
The novel concerns a novelist, Gerry Andersen who, while not a prolific author, became celebrated and financially successful thanks to his fourth and most celebrated novel, Dream Girl. That book about a man who changes his life when he meets a young woman named Aubrey brought him fame and fortune, leading to literary prizes, college teaching posts and his magnificent, if severe, new apartment in Baltimore.
Not that Gerry particularly wanted to live there again. He moved back to the city to care for his aging mother only for her to die a few days after he closed on the property. Still processing her death, an accident leaves him confined to his bed for several months as he waits for fractures to heal, cut off from the outside world.
Gerry is unsettled when he receives the first in a series of telephone calls from a woman who claims to be Aubrey, the celebrate title character from Dream Girl. Fueled by his isolation and the opioids he is being prescribed, Gerry begins to wonder if the calls are real or just a figment of his imagination. And, if they are real, who might be responsible…
In her notes at the end of the novel Lippman describes this work as her first work of horror fiction and while there are mystery elements here too, I certainly see why she says that. There is something truly hypnotic and deeply unsettling as we recognize, long before Gerry himself, how his world has become increasingly limited and how dependent he now is upon the people tasked with helping him. Lippman creates a palpable sense of dread right from the start of the novel, before the first of those strange phone calls is made, as we read how disoriented he now is by the drugs he is continually fed and it soon becomes clear that something is really going on, even if it takes us a while to learn why that might be the case.
The book continually jumps around in time, moving between the present and the events in Gerry’s past that seem to be linked to them. Some times the links are obvious but often the connections are more subtle, providing details about Gerry’s life and background that help us understand him better as a man. While I cannot say that I particularly liked him as a person, he feels credible and dimensional and his story, along with the issues it raises, are quite compelling.
One of the ideas here that appealed most to me was that readers often want the writer not to have been creative or to have simply invented their characters and plots. They want to believe that they can somehow pluck out or deduce the real life origins of those elements. Having been to a couple of literary festivals in my time, I have heard enough audience questions to know that this is undoubtedly true and I could understand why the question of who inspired the titular Dream Girl might provoke so much interest among his fans and the media.
Lippman’s answer to that question is really interesting, as are many of her reflections on the writing industry in general. I felt that the book was quite a reflective work, drawing on a number of themes and ideas that feel quite prominent in our moment but I think the handling of those ideas will likely be quite timeless.
The decision to tell this story from Gerry’s perspective is an interesting one because while it employs a third person voice, giving some distance, the reader may still feel encouraged to empathize with him as we see how he struggles to understand what is going on. While that choice is not always comfortable, I think it allows Lippman to explore those ideas and themes from a slightly different perspective than is usually used and would note that it does not come at the expense of hearing from those other voices later in the story.
So, what are the mystery elements here? Well, there are two main strands. The first concerns the identity of the person responsible for placing those calls and their motives for doing so. The second is prompted by something that happens at the end of the first part, sending the work in a somewhat different direction. I felt that both questions were interesting and that the answers developed were thoughtful and entertaining.
Though many of the central developments are carefully foreshadowed, that is not to say that the book doesn’t offer some surprises. There is a moment towards the end that I found to be both powerful and quite shocking. Similarly, I found the ending to be quite satisfying, feeling that it provided a strong resolution to the novel’s themes and plot threads.
Overall I felt it was a fine work with interesting characters, particularly Gerry, and a compelling and unsettling plot. It’s a superb piece of suspense writing that I think deserves the hype it has been quite rightly receiving.
The Verdict: Dream Girl has a really interesting and quite unsettling premise. What makes it compelling however is the sharp character study and its discussions of the creative process. Recommended.