LUCKY DOGS, by Helen Schulman
That Harvey Weinstein hired a private international spy agency called Black Cube to help squash stories about his sex crimes always seemed stranger than fiction. Well, now it is fiction.
In an author’s note, Helen Schulman states explicitly that her seventh novel, “Lucky Dogs,” was inspired by two players in this globe-spanning chapter of the Weinstein saga. One is the actress Rose McGowan: a canary in the noxious coal mine of Twitter, who posted about being raped by an unnamed studio executive in 2016, a year before allegations about Weinstein broke. The other is Stella Penn Pechanac, the Black Cube agent assigned to gather intelligence on McGowan, who earned her trust, secured a copy of her memoir-in-progress, which exposed Weinstein, and fed excerpts to him as warning.
“How could one woman do this to another woman?” Schulman had wondered, reading ragefully about the case. The question might sound naïve: Has she not seen the foundational Hollywood text “All About Eve”? But her imagined answer, in the form of this book, is deeply knowing, properly indignant and — maybe the best revenge — very funny. If you think it’s #TooSoon to satirize #MeToo, go back to your yoga mat.
Schulman has refashioned McGowan as Meredith “Merry” Montgomery: a violet-eyed, emotionally volatile starlet who’s unhappily hiding out in Paris, working on a tell-all about her bad experience with a repulsive toupeed movie executive she nicknames the Rug, self-anesthetizing with white wine, Xanax and ice cream.
At Berthillon, the Baskin-Robbins of France, she encounters a slightly older, well-put-together customer, Nina — also with unusually colored eyes: “emerald green” — who defends her against a couple of coarse American male tourists by whipping out a switchblade, and then her business card. Researching Nina online, and discovering she works for a women’s rights organization, Merry quickly becomes infatuated, romantically as well as ideologically.
They convene for champagne and gougères (the cuisine scenes in “Lucky Dogs” are, as they say, chef’s kiss), and she hands over her manuscript. Then her crush vanishes into the email ether.
Schulman’s most recent novels, “Come With Me” and “This Beautiful Life,” were both about technology’s seepage into the human soul, and “Lucky Dogs” — which refers wryly to those unencumbered by the daily grind — considers this problem as well.
What does it mean to be a public figure in an age when everyone has a “profile,” a dossier in cyberspace? Have anonymity and untraceability become more powerful than celebrity?
“The MacBook Air was my very own opioid crisis,” Merry thinks of her fixation on the internet. With a sick feeling she finds herself on social media fascinated with minor characters like “Nina’s ex-boyfriend’s current girlfriend’s twin sister.” (Been there.) Twitchy and paranoid, she tries to disappear in her black hoodie, “a Mall of America burka,” and burns through burner phones like matches.
Fame in “Lucky Dogs” is an inevitably fleeting and vulnerable condition. “Everyone loves Natalie,” the Rug tells Merry when he’s trying to seduce her, meaning Portman, “but she’s a little old now and too Jewy for this picture.” A child plays with a Spice Girls puzzle from when “Victoria Beckham still looked human instead of like a Siamese cat.”
Busy Philipps, Rosanna Arquette (“that old stalwart”) and a nameless best supporting actress (“God bless her knobby clavicle”) flock to support Merry after her Twitter account is shut down, as McGowan’s was, punishment for freewheeling tweets. And Merry thinks venomously of the chef Mario Batali, who also faced allegations of sexual assault, with his “sickening oily red pigtail at the base of his balding, spotted head.”
Merry seems predetermined to be a boldface casualty. Her surname was originally Monroe. Her mentally ill mother, who was obsessed with soap operas and now lives in a Villages-like retirement community in Florida, had considered christening her after Nicole Brown Simpson, the murder victim.
Meanwhile, Nina has always lived as if in invisible ink. As a journalist tips off Merry, she turns out to be Samara Marjanovic, a Bosnian refugee to Israel known by her Hebrew name, Smadar Marantz, along with many aliases; she works for Dark Star, a carbon copy of Black Cube, training with Mossad.
Her own mother absorbed the shock blows from the siege of Sarajevo, scenes of which Schulman renders with a steely cool. “Are they taking a nap?” asks a little boy, looking at his parents’ “mangled corpses” after a grenade hit, only to be called a “moron” by his older brother.
Panning between the two women’s points of view and radically different circumstances — Smadar is reminded of having to eat “grass soup”; Merry guzzles green juice — “Lucky Dogs” gradually builds to a realization of their essential commonality.
Samara/Smadar’s foray into spydom had everything to do with wanting to be an actress. (The professions require a similar “skill set,” in the jargon of unluckier dogs.) Both come from broken families. Both lack a sense of home. And both have been scarred, but not defeated, by sexual violence. Counterposing them, the novel has the sizzle of two jumper cables coming together.
The Weinstein investigation was painstakingly tethered to documents, testimony and facts; the villain, ringed by so many accusers, was also the protagonist. Here the villain is marginalized and ridiculed; two women he tried to make pawns get control of the chessboard. It’s a daringly creative and often gleeful coda to this long, sad, sordid true story.
LUCKY DOGS | By Helen Schulman | 321 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28