Looker (Sims)

Laura Sims, 2018
292 pp.

A dazzling, razor-sharp debut novel about a woman whose obsession with the beautiful actress on her block drives her to the edge.

   "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."

In this taut and thrilling debut, an unraveling woman, unhappily childless and recently separated, becomes fixated on her neighbor—the actress.

The unnamed narrator can’t help noticing with wry irony that, though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment lies between them. The actress, a celebrity with her face on the side of every bus, shares a gleaming brownstone with her handsome husband and their three adorable children, while the narrator, working in a dead-end job, lives in a run-down, three-story walk-up with her ex-husband’s cat.

When an interaction with the actress at the annual block party takes a disastrous turn, what began as an innocent preoccupation spirals quickly, and lethally, into a frightening and irretrievable madness.

Searing and darkly witty, Looker is enormously entertaining—a psychologically suspenseful and fearlessly original portrait of the perils of envy. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Where—Richmond, Virginia, USA
Education—B.A., College of William and Mary; M.F.A., University of Washington
Awards—Alberta Prize from Fence Books
Currently—lives in Brooklyn, New York

Laura Sims is an American poet and fiction writer, whose debut novel Looker (2019) sparked a bidding war, resulting in a major deal with Scribner. The book follows the spiraling descent of a woman obsessed—with the end of her marriage, with her inability to have a child, with her infuriatingly bourgeois Brooklyn neighborhood, and with her movie star neighbor.

Prior to her novel, Sims published four books of poetry: Staying Alive (2016), My god is this a man (2014), Stranger (2009), and Practice, Restraint (2005). In 2014, she compiled and edited Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. She has published five poetry chapbooks, including POST- (2011).

Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Aufgabe, Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, Colorado Review, Columbia Poetry Review, Crayon, and Denver Quarterly, among others.

She has published book reviews and essays in Boston Review, New England Review, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction.

Sims is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. She received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Washington. She is a professor of creative writing, literature and composition who currently teaches at New York University.

She has been a featured writer for Harriet, the Poetry Foundation's blog, and she is a co-editor of Instance Press with poets Elizabeth Robinson, Beth Anderson, and Susanne Dyckman. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

2005 - Alberta Prize for Practice, Restraint from Fence Books
2006 - Creative Artists Exchange Fellowship from the Japan-US Friendship Commission
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In prose that moves between lyrical and caterwauling, the poet Laura Sims has pulled off the high-wire act of making bitterness delicious (Most Anticipated Books of 2019).

This debut is a penetrating and unsettling psychological thriller.… It’s a novel about identity, appearances, and envy, and it’s one of the season’s most timely reads, an innovative experiment in what a thriller can be (Most Anticipated Books of 2019).
Literary Hub

In this electrifying Hitchcockian debut, an unhappy woman’s obsession with a nearby actress will push the boundaries between insanity and desperation.
Washington Independent Review of Books

Tense, twisted and briskly paced.… Somewhat surprisingly, the most disturbing thing about Looker is the creeping sense of complicity that Sims engenders in the reader… [compelli g] us to ask: Have we been deranged, predatory voyeurs into the actress's life—or into the narrator's?
Shelf Awareness

Laura Sims’ sharp debut novel is a thriller about an unhealthy fixation between neighbors, one that’s propelled by the unnamed narrator’s unraveling as she descends into a vortex of resentment and obsession (Best New Books Winter 2019).
Southern Living

(Starred Review) [C]hilling and riveting. In this tightly plotted novel, Sims takes the reader fully into the mind of a woman becoming increasingly unhinged, and turns her emotionally fraught journey into a provocative tale about the dangers of coveting what belongs to another
Publishers Weekly

[A] gripping and intense debut.…This twisted and tightly coiled tale will define obsession on a new level.
Library Journal

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.

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…. Its most original and electric moments [are] when the narrator dives into the edgy poems she teaches her students.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. At the very beginning of the novel, the narrator says that the actress “belongs to us. To our block, I mean,” (page 1). Why does she correct herself? And how does this set up the narrator’s increasingly intense feelings about the actress?

2. The narrator is very familiar with the actress’s roles, thinking, for instance, of her breakout in The Sultan of Hanover Street, which she watched with Nathan. How does her engagement with the actress’s many on-screen roles color her understanding of the actress as a wife, mother, and neighbor?

3. One of the reasons for the dissolution of the narrator’s marriage seems to be that the narrator was unable to conceive a child. How does this impact the narrator’s feelings about herself?

4. The narrator teaches her students that Emily Dickinson poems are “full of sex and rage,” (page 55). Why are these themes particularly resonant? Are there other ways of interpreting the poems she assigns?

5. When the narrator has lunch with her friend Shana, she at first believes she’s getting “appreciative looks” from every man in the room (page 58), but then realizes this might not be the case. How does this shift in reality complicate your understanding of the narrator’s reliability? What are other instances of her unreliability?

6. Describe the narrator’s transition from tolerating Cat to desperately holding on to her. How does she convince herself that Cat belongs with her?

7. When the narrator feels insecure in front of her students, she wears an outfit that “mirrors the one the actress wore to teach in every single scene of Working Class,” (page 83). Why? How would you describe the narrator’s feelings towards the actress?

8. The narrator fills up the room once intended for her and her husband’s child with the actress’s discarded family belongings, making the room into a kind of shrine. How do the narrator’s changing feelings about these belongings illuminate her moods?

9. Why do you think the narrator is so fixated on the block party?

10. Why does the narrator engage with Bernardo? Is he the unstable one, or is she?

11. After her months-long obsession with the block party, the narrator’s interaction with the actress does not go as expected. Why do you think the narrator, even after the incident with Nathan, chooses to go to the actress’s house? What does she hope to get out of the experience?

12. The narrator assigns Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” to her students (page 141). How does it speak to the way the narrator has responded to losing the things she once had—her job, her marriage, the possibility of a child?

13. On her final day with Cat, why does the narrator make the decision to act as she does? Is it planned, or an act of desperation?

14. The narrator envisions achieving a rapturous closeness with the actress as the novel comes to an end. Are these just fantasies, or are they more sinister than that?

15. How did you feel after spending so much time in the narrator’s head? When you finished reading, did you have sympathy for her? What did you think was going to happen to her afterwards?
(Questions issued by the publisher.)

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