Looker
by Sims, Laura






A woman's obsession with the beautiful actress on her block drives her to the edge. A first novel. 100,000 first printing.





Recently divorced after a long struggle with infertility, the unnamed narrator of poet Sims' first novel clings to Cat, her ex-husband's pet that she never even liked. Sadly, work doesn't distract her from her misery. As a "non-tenure-track lecturer at an overpriced, second-rate city school," she has only one class this semester, a poetry survey for a handful of students (one of whom seems to be hitting on her). She finds her sole joy in watching her famous actress neighbor take walks with her kids, go out for runs, and sip wine with her handsome husband inside the kitchen of her beautiful brownstone. The narrator avidly collects the actress' films and the hand-me-downs she leaves on her stoop, and thinks her desire for a friendship with the gorgeous celebrity might be mutual-people could even mistake them for one another. Readers fond of protagonists who profess to guzzling wine at nine a.m. will breeze right through this one's bad decisions, moments of shocking clarity and cruelty, and-no spoilers!-total undoing. A dark and stylish drama featuring a self-aware yet unstable narrator. Copyright 2018 Booklist Reviews.





A woman destabilized by her infertility and impending divorce obsesses over her next door neighbor, an actress who seems to have it all.After years trying to achieve her dream of being a tenured professor of English in the big city with a husband, children, and even a cat to round things out, the unnamed narrator of poet Sims' (Staying Alive, 2016, etc.) first foray into fiction has hit a wall. Infertility forced her to give up her dreams of motherhood; her husband has left her. She's only managed to make lecturer at her university, teaching a night class on poetry to seven students. At least she's got the cat. As the woman stews in bitterness over her fate, she fixates on the actress, who recently made the move from indie darling to blockbuster star. The narrator watches the actress through her lit windows at dusk: The actress has a handsome husband, three beautiful children, a cook, a nanny. As the narrator's divorce grows more acrimonious, she makes a series of increasingl y unhinged decisions—ranging from stealing from the actress's garden to getting involved with one of her poetry students—and accelerates toward inevitable disaster. Like a modern-day version of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," Sims' novel shows the warped reality and claustrophobic mentality of a person losing a grip on her moral compass. But this reality is conveyed with slack language and a piling on of plot turns out of Single White Female or Fatal Attraction, which seems especially bewildering from Sims, the author of four well-regarded collections of poetry. In fact, the novel has some of its most original and electric moments when the narrator dives into the edgy poems she teaches her students. That this novel gallops along at top speed doesn't disguise the overly familiar scenery going by along the way. Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.





It was Mrs. H who started calling her the actress, making it sound like she was one of those old Hollywood legends-Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall. That may have been accurate early in her career, when she was a serious indie star, but now her fiercely sculpted, electric-blue-clad body adorns the side of nearly every city bus I see. It's an ad for one of those stupid blockbusters-and she isn't even the main star, she's only the female star-so she's a sellout, like all the rest. It's disappointing only because she belongs to us. To our block, I mean.
 
And here she comes-passing so close to where I sit on my stoop that I can see the tiny blue bunny rabbits embroidered on her baby's hat. She has him strapped to her chest in that cloth contraption all the moms have. It should look ludicrous, the baby an awkward lump tied to the front of her white linen sundress, but somehow the actress pulls it off. She more than pulls it off-as he peers up at her she lowers her head and shakes her sleek auburn hair in his face. He squeals in delight. They look like they're being filmed right now, like they're co-starring in a shampoo commercial, but there's only me watching. She knows I'm sitting here but she doesn't turn her head when she passes by. She just stares straight ahead with that slight smile, meant to be mysterious, I'm sure. I see your airbrushed body on the bus almost every day! I want to shout. I take a long drag on my cigarette and blow a cloud of smoke after her and the babe.
 
*
 
Later on, riding the subway home after my night class, I wonder about the sad sacks filling my train car. What are their twelve-hour workdays like? Full of tedium and rage? Sullen acceptance? The women's faces have gone slack and gray by this time of night. The men's shirts are rumpled, with sweat stains at the pits. A few reek of cigarettes and booze. There they sit, swaying and bumping in the unclean air. Does the actress ever take the subway? Maybe once in a while, to prove that she's a regular person. But usually there's a car outside her house, idling, waiting to whisk her anywhere she wants or needs to go. "To the park," I imagine her saying. To the theater, to the trendy restaurant I've never heard of, to the Apple store, to the apple orchard upstate. Meanwhile I sit on the stoop or shrug myself up, back and legs aching, to find my greasy Metrocard and join the tide of commoners underground. Does she remember how hot it is down on the platform in late summer? And how cold it gets in winter? Until you step inside the train car and have to shrug out of your heavy coat and scarf (if you can, packed as you are like sardines) because it's steaming and suddenly so are you. Does she remember these and other indignities of "regular person" city life? Does she breathe a sigh of relief every time she passes one of the station entrances in her sleek black car? I would. I'm certain I would. The past would seem like a distant bad dream. Or a joke.
 
I pass by the actress's house on my way home, as usual. A rich yellow glow spills from the garden-level windows of her brownstone. I've never seen a prettier, more welcoming room in all my life, and I want so badly to be inside it. The hardwood floor, the stainless steel appliances, and the wood-topped island at the heart of the kitchen all gleam under the yellow light. Closer to the window, there's a cozy play area with expensive-looking toys strewn across a simple beige carpet. Wooden animals, an elaborate dollhouse, a riding toy for the baby. Only the best for her three kids. Only the handmade, the safest, the locally sourced, the organically grown. In that, she and her husband are no different from everyone else around here, coddling their children with overpriced toys, clothes, and food-and then the kids will grow up hating their parents anyway, just like the ones raised on spankings, secondhand smoke, and Oscar Meyer lunchmeats do.  
 
Tonight, the husband leans on the kitchen island, chatting comfortably with the cook as she works. The husband is a screenwriter-that's how he and the actress met, he co-wrote one of her earliest films. He's handsome, of course-Iranian-American, with shining dark eyes and a lush but neatly trimmed black beard. Now that's a beard. Not like the straggly hipster beards you see around here. The husband could be a movie star himself, but he remains a writer. Happy to be in her shadow, I suppose. Or not happy, merely biding his time before he leaves her for the nanny...or the cook? Either would be a very poor choice, considering what he'd be leaving behind. The two girls are seated in the play area, organizing the dollhouse. Bickering, I think. The eight year-old girl, an exact replica of the actress, with her auburn hair and wide-set green eyes, brushes the six year-old's hand away from a miniscule wardrobe, and then moves it herself. The younger sister pouts, folding her arms over her chest and glaring at the back of her sister's head. She has her father's dark hair and dark eyes. The two of them look like cousins rather than sisters. The black-haired, green-eyed baby, on the other hand, is a perfect mix of his parents' genes; he sits behind the girls, chewing placidly on some sort of squeezie toy shaped like a giraffe.
 
The actress herself sits alone at the kitchen table in the back of the room with her face lighted by her laptop screen, typing away at something-an e-mail? A novel? A tweet to her followers and fans? I know she tweets-or someone tweets for her-but she isn't very active on Twitter. She mostly re-tweets women's rights activists, left-leaning politicians, and her famous friends. I tried following her on Instagram once, thinking I'd get a window into her innermost life, but it was just a carefully managed picture parade. Magazine-style shots of things like fresh blueberries heaped in a child's hand (#summer!), the sunset from an airplane window (#cominghomeatlast), one artfully blurred, close-up "selfie" of her and her husband's faces (#datenight). Maybe it wasn't a curated account, maybe it really was her posting, but I knew I wouldn't find any intimate moments on Instagram that could match what I saw through her window almost daily.
 
A full glass of wine sits by her hand. Too close, I want to say. I lean toward the window. You should move that wine away from your laptop-I lost one that way, once. But nothing will happen to the actress's laptop-she won't spill the wine, and even if she does, won't she just laugh as a staff member mops up the mess and sets a gleaming new computer before her? And then continue as she was, typing merrily away, completely unscathed?
 
I've never crossed their little fenced-in garden, of course. I stand on the sidewalk in front of the fern-and-ivy-filled planter that hangs from the fence-placed there as a sort of screen, I'm sure-and have a direct line of view into the kitchen at night. I'm grateful they've never thought to install blinds-that's how confident they are. No one would dare stand in front of our house and watch us, they think. And they're probably right: except for me.
 
People pass behind me, probably mistaking me for her, the golden one relaxing for a moment in the cool night air. Was that her? They wonder. But they don't turn back to look-it would be too intrusive. Sometimes I even pretend to be her when someone walks by. I straighten up a bit, try to hold my head at that particular angle she often does, try to act like I've just stepped away from my arduous, exalted life. By the time I've made this transformation in posture and attitude, they're already gone, and it's just me, alone in the darkness.
 
In The Sultan of Hanover Street, a moody indie film from ten years ago, she played the adult daughter of the star, Richard McKane, who looked 50 though he was surely in his 70s by then. She proved herself in Sultan, especially in the hospital scene. She played it straight, without tears or cheap sentimentality. She was captivating. I remember sitting in the dark next to Nathan, studying her face for the first time: the sharp cheekbones and those giant green eyes. Her features loomed large, unbearably beautiful, as though she belonged to some glorious alien race. I fixed my inferior eyes on that face and felt it lift me out of my seat, out of my life for a moment. The warmth of Nathan's hand in mine brought me back, held me down, made me thankful to be exactly where and who I was. 
 
Nathan. That hand is gone, and has taken him with it. Or vice-versa. Whatever. He's gone.
 
So she gathered her accolades for the role in Sultan-not an Oscar, but a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, I think? And glowing reviews. She did more indie work for a while, spreading her roots through the Hollywood soil, building her rep as an indie darling, and then? She sold. Right. Out. She signed on to do a Michael Bay movie-something with a tsunami and killer robots. What a joke. But it was a huge hit with the masses and it made her famous. She promptly married her screenwriter boyfriend, bought her house here, and started having babies. Her first two came the standard two years apart-the boy an unconventional five-plus years later. What happened in the intervening years? Fertility issues like mine? Marital trouble? Or was the third child one of those "happy accidents"? Maybe it was none of the above. Maybe one day she woke up, hungering for another baby, and so she went and had one-just like that. I wonder if she'll stop at three-why should she, with others to do the messy work? I see her with the kids, but rarely with more than one at a time. The other moms in this neighborhood teeming with families pile their strollers with two, three, even four kids at a time, struggling and cursing under their breaths as they push uphill toward the park. But the actress makes parenting look glamorous and fun. She's always stylishly dressed, even in casual clothes, and I can't imagine her breaking a sweat. If I were a local mom, I would hate her. It isn't as easy as you make it look! I would shout through her ground-floor windows. Imagine how my voice would pierce the cozy domestic scene! The kids would run to the windows, hands and faces pressed to the glass. The baby might burst into tears. The husband would furrow his handsome brow and start immediately for the door. Who goes there? I imagine him calling into the night. And the actress? She'd glance up for a moment with a distant, distracted smile, take a sip from her wine glass, and go back to typing away on her laptop.
 
*
 
The actress's baby is screaming his head off in front of my building. The nanny leans her head close to his in the stroller and shushes him gently, waving a toy in his face and letting him grab it. He continues to scream. She rummages in the diaper bag slung across the stroller handles and then sighs exasperatedly. Finally she notices me, smoking on the front stoop, just a few feet away. We've exchanged smiles and brief greetings over the past months, whenever she's passed by with the stroller. Once, I got up the nerve to say, "Cute boy," and she replied, "Yes, but he's a handful," in a cheerful, maternal way. I fought the urge to ask if the baby was hers-knowing, of course, that it wasn't-but hoping it would prompt her to share some tidbit about her boss. Even to hear her say the actress's name would have given me a little thrill. "I've left his pacifier at home," she says now. "Oh no," I say, frowning sympathetically. The child's screams seem to crescendo at the word "pacifier." She starts to turn around for home with him, shaking her head, when I stand abruptly and say, "Wait." She looks up at me, takes in the cigarette still smoking in my hand. I drop it, crush it under my heel, and go down the steps to her. "I'll watch him for a minute while you run back. It's no trouble, really." She starts to protest; I can see her weighing the convenience of going back without the cumbersome stroller versus the potential anger of her employers if they were to find out. But how would they find out? I'd never tell. "I don't mind a screaming little one," I say confidingly, looking her in the eyes and placing a hand on her arm. "They live so close. It will only take you a second, right?" She glances back at her employer's house-ten, fifteen steps away, tops!-then looks back at me. "Right," she says. "Thank you. I won't be a minute." And she speed-walks down the block. So here I am, alone with the actress's baby. He may be red-faced and screaming, but he is all mine. So delicious, waving his little arms in the air, arching his back against the straps that hold him in. I kneel down in front of him and wriggle my fingers in front of his face, making clucking noises with my tongue. He stares at me and screams even louder, writhes all the more powerfully in his seat. The poor thing! I start to unbuckle him. I will hold him to me, smell his head, brush my lips over his downy hair. But the damn buckles are so complicated, and before I can get him out, the nanny materializes beside me. She pops the pacifier in his mouth, thanks me profusely, and pushes the stroller along up the street.
 
Just like that, he's gone. Gone like Nathan. Gone like the baby we never had. I drag myself back up the steps and inside.
 
Upstairs, everything's a mess. The cat-the damn cat, Nathan's cat-has tracked her litter through the kitchen again. I had the leak beneath the kitchen sink fixed days ago, but the cabinet still reeks of mildew. Romantic brownstone living! Trash piled in the can, dirty laundry piled in the hamper. Nathan used to do all that-clean up after the cat, take out the trash, take care of the laundry. I try to keep up but I've been barely functional since he left.
 
I'm not alone, though, I tell myself: I have my books. My student papers to grade. My students, I suppose. I have my colleagues at school, too-a few, at least, who aren't self-important jerks, lecherous drunks, or socially awkward weirdos. Or all of those rolled into one (which would make: my department chair). I also have two or three old friends, one of whom I see regularly for lunch. That's the sum total of my life, since Nathan left six weeks ago. Oh, and Cat, the stupid cat that Nathan's had since grad school...who's now been abandoned just like me. Here we are, unlikely pair in misery, doing our best to stay out of each other's way. I feed her to keep her alive-that's it. 
 
*
 
I walk past the actress on my way home from the grocery store. Our eyes meet for a moment, then she looks away. You're ugly, I think. Without meaning to. But it's true-at least today, in this afternoon light, she looks too raw, too hugely featured. Her eyes bulge, her lips are almost obscenely plush, and her cheekbones jut beneath her thin skin. In the mirror at home, I push my fingers around my face. Small nose, thin lips, and nearly invisible cheekbones. But I've got fairy-tale eyes-bright blue, almond-shaped. When the actress looked at me today, maybe she thought: you should be on the screen. Maybe that's why she had to look away. 
 
We've spoken only once, at last year's block party. The neighborhood kids-including her two girls-were thrashing around inside the net walls of the bouncy house. Grown-ups were gathered in loose circles nearby, standing or sitting on folding chairs, chatting aimlessly, pleased at the effortless parenting and the excuse to drink beer at noon. I was standing in front of our house with my dish of watermelon-and-feta orzo salad in hand, waiting for Nathan to come down, when I saw her from the corner of my eye. She walked over to the food table, holding a bag from The Larder, a gourmet food shop new to the neighborhood. I made a beeline for the table, brandishing my dish. I flashed her a smile. Our eyes met. "Where's that?" I blurted out, pointing at her bag. "What?" she said in her famously husky voice. "Oh. The Larder. It's just two blocks from here. Delicious stuff." I nodded, watching her unload container after container of costly gourmet sides: parmesan roasted acorn squash, Portobello mushrooms sautéed in wine, grilled shrimp and octopus salad, braised bacon-wrapped endives-dishes it would take all day for some ragged woman like me to cook. I scrambled to think of what to say next, how to keep her interested in staying there with me. "Looks good!" I said at last, hating what must be the desperate-looking grin on my face. But she smiled back, generous soul, and then floated away in her ankle-length burnt-orange sundress and floppy straw hat, back to her beautiful house. I watched her go, feeling melted inside. Like I'd been touched by the warm, immense hand of a goddess. When the feeling left a few moments later, shame replaced it. It crept up my neck in a hot flush. What had I said? "Looks good!" Like some half-wit. Some rube.
 
I'm interesting! I wanted to shout. I'm somebody, too! But then Nathan was beside me, slipping his arm around my waist, and the self-loathing dropped away. After an hour of chatting with neighbors, Nathan at my side, I'd forgotten the whole stupid scene. Well, not the scene, but at least I'd let go of the deep humiliation. I barely turned my head, later, when the actress reappeared, radiant and cool as ever. I could be immune to her sometimes, back then. 
 
There's a scene in the actress's second movie, Girl with Dog, an earnest indie rom-com, where she tells her friend, "Love makes you interesting. It makes everyone interesting." She delivers the line with such gusto, her green eyes bright and even slightly moist. The friend scoffs and says, "Yeah, right. Everyone but me."
 






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