The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, by Rebecca Miller

From minx to mom: the mistress of all makeovers
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The Independent Culture

Rebecca Miller's debut novel tells the story of a woman divided against herself. Emerging from a family tradition of smother love, Pippa Lee is pacified with a baby's bottle until the age of 12. When she discovers her doting mother's addiction to amphetamine, she's transformed into a furious teenager. Heedless and hapless, she drops out of school, leaves home and embraces a life of dissipation, casual treachery and substance abuse. She is Pippa the destroyer, an "ingénue femme fatale" who takes no responsibility for the lives she wrecks, including that of her kind Aunt Trish, whose girlfriend she steals.

She is rescued by Herb Lee, an urbane and charismatic New York publisher, 30 years her senior and very rich. He loves her because she's an "original" and can give him back his youth. Surprisingly, Pippa loves him in return. "I always knew you were no good," wails Herb's wife, "a predator of the worst kind, the unconscious kind." Not even Gigi's suicide can taint their happiness, and Pippa sets about training herself to be good. So begins her second transformation into the perfect wife, mother and cook.

The novel opens as Herb, now 80, has liquified his assets to secure the saintly Pippa's future. The couple have moved into a retirement community for the filthy rich. They're entertaining Herb's literary friends, and we find Pippa in her immaculate kitchen, "lighting a small blowtorch and turning it on 15 pots of crème brulée". No wonder she's sleepwalking.

Beloved by all, yet never quite at home in Herb's hyper-civilised milieu, she befriends the damaged Chris, a failed born-again Christian. Meanwhile, her sleepwalking (and driving) allows Pippa to surrender the control she has longed to lose, and regress into night-time binges of chocolate cake and chain-smoking.

Rebecca Miller is the daughter of Arthur Miller and the wife of Daniel Day Lewis, though her writing requires no external supports. She's at her best in the central section, a first-person narrative wherein Pippa recounts the bizarre events of her youth. The seduction of her high-school teacher is startling, painful and told with great sensitivity, and Mr Brown is a beautifully realised creation. There's an episodic quality here that hints at Miller's background in short stories. Vivacious and intense, these chapters are bound by a consistency of tone and voice lacking in some of the third-person sections. The novel's beginning, in particular, feels strained.

Her psychology is often penetrating, especially about the mother-daughter bond, "a deadly sweet and voracious passion". The writing is rich in striking images. A glance is "like a magpie spotting a rhinestone". The nests of brown-tail moths look like "cotton candy with worms in it".

The conclusion is a pile-up of calamities, though not without the obligatory reconciliations and epiphanies. There's even a promise of liberation for Pippa, who hitches a ride in Chris's van and, like so many other characters in American fiction, heads west towards an empty horizon.

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