I’m going to start by saying that Prom Mom doesn’t come out until July but I was lucky enough to get an ARC on Netgalley. I wanted to write this while the book was fresh in my mind–as soon it was downloaded I started reading. The book really seemed tailor-made for me, not only does it take place in areas I am very familiar but a good chunk of the book takes place around a prom in 1997 when one of the main characters, Amber Glass, gives birth in a hotel room in sort of a fugue state. I graduated high school in 1997 which was the height of real-life stories of abandoned babies and giving birth at the prom. The other part of the book takes place leading up to and including the early days of the pandemic which I half related to but the characters really didn’t let the pandemic stop them from living their lives much at all.
When I read Laura Lippman’s books that are so hyper-set in Baltimore, where I live, I wonder if other books are so set in place but I don’t realize it because I don’t live there. One of her books is even being made into a tv show that was being filmed in my neighborhood–right down the block from my library!
Outside of a few, I really don’t think most books are as specific as Lippman’s. I think we all know more about LA and NYC practically by osmosis than we would about most cities because so many books and movies take place there but most other cities can’t say that. I think about this a lot and try to pay attention to it and I rarely get the impression that the authors are being as specific as she is.
Baltimore actually has two authors that spend a lot of time here and who place their characters and plot in very specific and real places. One of Anne Tyler’s most recent books takes place right up the street from Prom Mom which takes place largely in a community just outside the city in the surrounding Baltimore County.
What is it about Baltimore that inspires such specificity?
I digress. I did find myself thinking about Anne Tyler when reading because most of the book is really a character study of the “prom mom” Amber and “cad dad” Joe and his wife. The book focuses on other people as well, including the mother of the “cad dad” and even the prom limo driver but it’s largely about these three and what seems to be a collision course.
In the beginning, I was thinking about who was going to die (Laura Lippman is currently largely a mystery author after all) but no deaths or even serious injuries happen until quite far in the book. Most of the book is going over what happened in 1997, Amber opening a gallery that sells outsider art, and the marriage of Joe and his talented plastic surgeon wife, Meredith whom he is devoted to. I was starting to think the book would pass without actual crime outside of real estate trickery when there were some soap opera-level twists. Honestly, I was disappointed. I loved about 5/8ths of the book and then the ending seemed abrupt and forced. There were signs of what might happen along the way of course but I was hoping it would have been more nuanced than how it ended.
For most of the book, I was also wondering how Laura Lippman’s marriage to David Simon was doing as so much of it took place in Baltimore and with backgrounds in New Orleans, both places that they’ve lived together and its deep look into marriage, fidelity, relationships, secret philosophical difference. In the author’s note at the end she thanks both Sarah Marshall of You’re Wrong About fame for the title and David Simon for successfully co-parenting their daughter so she could write after their divorce. I don’t think that fact has been made public before.
I really did enjoy the book but the ending was a real false note for me. I don’t know if there needed to be so many “twists” or even a crime at all. I have been reading her books since I was a teenager back in 1997 with the first Tess Monaghan book and her reporting before that (as did my mother) and it’s rare I don’t enjoy her work. I did not like Dream Girl at all and her memoir was fine. I felt like this was a return to Lippman’s strengths after Dream Girl which was one of my least favorite books (out of hundreds read!) that year. I’m not sure why she has sort of drifted into “thriller twist” territory over straight mystery which I feel she is better at plotting. That said, I still highly recommend Prom Mom even if you don’t live here and can picture every single place they go.