Diving into Lara Bazelon’s first novel, A Good Mother, I had some trepidation. For one thing, I knew Lara was a real trial lawyer, and that meant Lara knew that real trials were boring and tedious, so writing a book about a trial meant it had to be juiced up, edited, and gamed to some extent to create something thrilling enough that it made you want to read the next page. There’s a reason some lawyers (and judges, though they’ll deny it) fall asleep during trial, you know.
But what’s very hard to do is create a trial that’s both compelling enough to make you want to read more of it while incorporating the aspects and “feel” of a trial that made it real. There’s a lot of that in A Good Mother, and trial lawyers will see the gems under the surface they know only too well rather than just the hyped-up drama that ranges from overly pat to overly melodramatic. And yes, occasionally so wild that you have to suspend your disbelief. This is not a hornbook. Then again, nobody wants to read a hornbook for giggles. You’ll want to read A Good Mother.
The defendant, a 19-year-old Latina who killed her drunken army brute of a husband, was completely unprepared to testify and too-well prepared to demonstrate the killing. She had inexplicable magic sexual powers over men, mostly because the primary male characters in the book were, for the most part*, remarkably unlikable. At their best, they were dumb and shallow. At their worst, they were flagrantly disgusting, like the former-AUSA now judge who watched as his former hated adversary, desperately seeking his recusal, stripped in chambers before him. Do judges do this? Do lawyers do this? Maybe in L.A., but nowhere I’ve ever worked.
Why did she do this? This was the hard-nosed, conflicted federal defender, Abby Rosenberg, whose motives vary from self-loathing to cluelessly narcissistic. And this is the hero of the book, whose dislikability is tested against how much you detest her co-counsel, former-JAG lawyer Will Ellet, whose ethics are even worse than his client management. There seems, at times, to be some sort of zen-like purpose to Abby’s conduct, mostly displayed in stares and sentence fragments, but this could be some deeper gender understanding that eludes my male grasp of what’s going on in a mother’s head. That she also cared more for her indulgence in hot baths than the life of her newborn didn’t help.
And therein lies one of the most interesting aspects of Lara’s book, which you realize from the first page forward. This is a book unabashedly written by a woman writer from a woman’s perspective. And given Lara’s earlier writing about what life in the trenches is like for a female trial lawyer, I expected nothing less from her. But also as I expected from Lara, she wouldn’t create some faux superhero woman, but a lawyer for whom you rooted but never quite trusted.
If I were to describe the hair color of female TV news reporters, I might write something like “varying shades of blond.” Lara writes “ash blond, dark blond, caramel blond–perfectly blown out.” This just isn’t the way I see hair color, yet I did when I read it through Lara’s eyes. And this happens again and again throughout the book, mentioning shoes, hair, clothing and make-up in ways that would never occur to me. My favorite was when the AUSA wore not just pearls, but “classic pearls.” I saw it through the eyes of a woman, when it’s too often couched in sexy terms if at all.
And then there’s the episiotomy reference tossed in for a quick cringe, and breastfeeding conundrums that are so routine for new mothers but invisible to most men. Lara weaved this throughout the book, making me see the office and courtroom through a woman’s, a mother’s, lens. It was really quite fascinating, and done in such a casual way as to make you see it without feeling as if Lara smacked you across the face with it.
Of course, there was a good dose of social justice in the story as well, which was entirely fair given that what passes as empathy today has been a focus of criminal defense lawyers long before it was cool. As the trial happens in 2007, some of the language, like “black and brown people,” was more modern than was used back then, but it’s forgivable given that it’s now de riqueur. Indeed, back then, criminal defense lawyers were pretty much the only people who cared how black and Hispanic defendants were treated in the system.
The book has its flaws. The judge was first drawn as a cartoon character, with some mystery hatred stemming from a prior trial Dars Doucey had with Abby which resulted in some sort of disciplinary complaint that’s never quite explained. No doubt it was to set up what a pompous scheming ass the judge would be at trial for those who never had the pleasure of knowing actual pompous scheming asses on the bench in real life. Co-counsel Will, who starts out as a post-JAG boy scout, later engages in conduct so horrifically unethical as to be enraging, not to mention inexplicable, so as to paint him reprehensible. Yet, he suffers no consequences for it, and Abby knows and yet lets it go with merely a womanly death glare.
But then there are moments in the book that every trial lawyer will feel, like the tension of knowing the jury has a verdict and then . . . waiting. Waiting for the jury to be brought in. Waiting as the foreperson hands the clerk the verdict sheet. Waiting as the judge looks at it. Waiting as the clerk hands it back to the foreperson. Waiting. You feel that tension because you lived the longest few minutes ever waiting to hear whether the foreperson responds with one or two words.
While there is much about the book that will make a lawyer wince, not the least of which is the lack of client control by these two seasoned trial lawyers. Abby and Will exert no control over Luz, the sometimes mystical, sometimes childlike, Latina, to whom they appear to defer despite Abby’s very real words to her after she’s sandbagged at arraignment, “Don’t you ever fucking lie to me again.” We’ve all said those words, but when the client decides not to answer our questions later, we have similarly firm words for them. Somehow, that last part didn’t make an appearance and Luz, charged with Murder 1, is allowed to be in charge.
Then there are trial tactics, a shirtless, blood-letting demo of the killing, which made for better drama than any chance it would ever be allowed in a federal courtroom. Plus a charging choice to refuse lesser-includeds to eliminate the possibility of a compromise verdict, that will make your head spin. Granted, Abby was against it, but then she didn’t make much of an argument against it until it played out before the court.
With all that said, a bit of belief suspended, it really was a fun and thrilling read, and I admit that the trial kept me engrossed, wanting to read the next page to see the answer to the cross question. A Good Mother, might not have been quite as technically accurate about the preparation and trial of a murder case as one might expect, although those buried gems of what goes through the minds of real trial lawyer are in there. But then, the hard work of trying a case really isn’t all that interesting. Instead, A Good Mother was filled with drama, some wildly unexpected twists and an ending that made you realize that the title wasn’t just about the defendant and her defense, but her lawyer as well.
*There is a strip-mall general practice lawyer, Estrada, who’s wise, ethical, kind and mysterious, who offers some of the best advice in the novel. If you don’t really want to know the answer, don’t ask the question.