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A Novel



About The Book

*Featured on Best of Lists in Vogue, People, Entertainment Weekly, Real Simple, Southern Living, and more*

In this “wicked slow burn” (Entertainment Weekly) of psychological suspense from the author of How Can I Help You, a woman becomes fixated on her neighbor—the actress.

Though the two women live just a few doors apart, a chasm lies between them. The actress, a celebrity with a charmed career, shares a gleaming brownstone with her handsome husband and three adorable children, while the recently separated narrator, unhappily childless and stuck in a dead-end job, lives in a run-down, three-story walk-up with her ex-husband’s cat.

As her fascination with her famous neighbor grows, the narrator’s hold on reality begins to slip. Before long, she’s collecting cast-off items from the actress’s stoop and fantasizing about sleeping with the actress’s husband. After a disastrous interaction with the actress at the annual block party, what began as an innocent preoccupation turns into a stunning—and irrevocable—unraveling.

A riveting portrait of obsession, Looker is “a sugarcoated poison pill of psychological terror” (The Wall Street Journal) and an immersive and darkly entertaining read—“by the end you’ll be gasping” (People).



It was Mrs. H who started calling her the actress, making it sound like she was one of those old Hollywood legends—Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Lauren Bacall. That may have been accurate early in her career, when she was a serious indie star, but now her fiercely sculpted, electric-blue-clad body adorns the side of nearly every city bus I see. It’s an ad for one of those stupid blockbusters—and she isn’t even the main star, she’s only the female star—so she’s a sellout, like all the rest. It’s disappointing only because she belongs to us. To our block, I mean.

And here she comes—passing so close to where I sit on my stoop that I can see the tiny blue bunny rabbits embroidered on her baby’s hat. She has him strapped to her chest in that cloth contraption all the moms have. It should look ludicrous, the baby an awkward lump on the front of her white linen sundress, but somehow the actress pulls it off. She more than pulls it off—as he peers up at her she lowers her head and shakes her shoulder-length auburn hair in his face. He squeals in delight. They look like they’re being filmed right now, like they’re co-starring in a shampoo commercial, but there’s only me watching. She knows I’m sitting here but she doesn’t acknowledge me when she passes by. She just stares straight ahead with that slight smile, meant to be mysterious, I’m sure. I see your airbrushed body on the bus almost every day! I want to call out. I take a long drag on my cigarette and blow a cloud of smoke after her and the babe.


Later on, riding the subway home after my night class, I wonder about the sad sacks filling my train car. What are their twelve-hour workdays like? Full of tedium and sullen acceptance? Rage? The women’s faces have gone slack and gray by this time of night. The men’s shirts are rumpled, with sweat stains at the pits. A few reek of cigarettes and booze. There they sit, swaying and bumping in the unclean air. Does the actress ever take the subway? Maybe once in a while, to prove that she’s a regular person. But usually there’s a car outside her house, idling, waiting to whisk her anywhere she wants or needs to go. “To the park,” I imagine her saying. To the theater, to the trendy restaurant I’ve never heard of, to the Apple Store, to the apple orchard upstate. Meanwhile I sit on the stoop or shrug myself up, back and legs aching, to find my greasy MetroCard and join the tide of commoners underground. Does she remember how hot it is down on the platform in late summer? And how cold it gets in winter? Until you step inside the train car and have to struggle out of your heavy coat and scarf (if you can, packed as you are like sardines) because it’s steaming and suddenly so are you. Does she remember these and other indignities of “regular person” city life? Does she breathe a sigh of relief every time she passes one of the station entrances in her sleek black car? I would. I’m certain I would. The past would seem like a distant bad dream. Or a joke.

I pass by the actress’s house on my way home, as usual. A rich yellow glow spills from the garden-level windows of her brownstone. I’ve never seen a prettier, more welcoming room in all my life. The hardwood floor, the stainless steel appliances, and the wood-topped island at the heart of the kitchen all gleam under the yellow light. Closer to the window, there’s a cozy play area with expensive-looking toys strewn across a simple beige carpet. Wooden animals, an elaborate dollhouse, a riding toy for the baby. Only the best for her three kids. Only the handmade, the safest, the locally sourced, the organically grown. In that, she and her husband are no different from everyone else around here, coddling their children with overpriced toys, clothes, and food—and then the kids will grow up hating their parents anyway, just like the ones raised on spankings, secondhand smoke, and Oscar Mayer lunch meats do.

Tonight, the husband leans on the kitchen island, chatting comfortably with the cook as she works. The husband is a screenwriter—that’s how he and the actress met, he co-wrote one of her earliest films. He’s handsome, of course—Iranian American, with shining dark eyes and a lush but neatly trimmed black beard. Now that’s a beard. Not like the straggly hipster beards you see around here. The husband could be a movie star himself, but he remains a writer. Happy to be in her shadow, I suppose. Or not happy, merely biding his time before he leaves her for the nanny . . . or the cook? Either would be a very poor choice, considering what he’d be leaving behind. The two girls are seated in the play area, organizing the dollhouse. Bickering, I think. The eight-year-old girl, an exact replica of the actress, with her auburn hair and wide-set green eyes, brushes the six-year-old’s hand away from a minuscule wardrobe, and then moves it herself. The younger sister pouts, folding her arms over her chest and glaring at the back of her sister’s head. She has her father’s dark hair and dark eyes. The two of them look like cousins rather than sisters. The black-haired, green-eyed baby, though, is a perfect mix of his parents’ genes; he sits behind the girls, chewing placidly on some sort of squeezy toy shaped like a giraffe.

The actress sits alone at the kitchen table in the back of the room with her face lighted by her laptop screen, typing away at something—an e-mail? A novel? A tweet to her followers and fans? I know she tweets—or someone tweets for her—but she isn’t very active on Twitter. She mostly retweets women’s rights activists, left-leaning politicians, and her famous friends. I tried following her on Instagram once, thinking I’d get a window into her innermost life, but it was just a carefully managed picture parade. Magazine-style shots of things like fresh blueberries heaped in a child’s hand (#summer!), the sunset from an airplane window (#cominghomeatlast), one artfully blurred, close-up “selfie” of her and her husband’s faces (#datenight). Maybe it wasn’t a curated account, maybe it really was her posting, but I knew I wouldn’t find any intimate moments there that could match what I saw through her window almost daily.

A full glass of wine sits by her hand. Too close, I want to say. I lean toward the window. You should move that wine away from your laptop—I lost one that way, once. But nothing will happen to the actress’s laptop: she won’t spill the wine, and even if she does, won’t she just laugh as a staff member mops up the mess and sets a gleaming new computer before her? And then continue as she was, typing merrily away, completely unscathed?

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.

People pass behind me, probably mistaking me for the actress, the golden one relaxing for a moment in the cool night air. Was that her? they wonder. But they don’t turn back to look—it would be too intrusive. Sometimes I even pretend to be her when someone walks by. I straighten up a bit, try to hold my head at that particular angle she does, try to act like I’ve just stepped away from my arduous, exalted life. By the time I’ve made this transformation in posture and attitude, they’re already gone, and it’s just me, alone at the gate.

In The Sultan of Hanover Street, a moody indie film from ten years ago, she played the adult daughter of the star, Richard McKane, who looked fifty though he was surely in his seventies by then. She proved herself in Sultan, especially in the hospital scene. She played it straight, without tears or cheap sentimentality. She was captivating. I remember sitting in the dark next to Nathan, studying her face for the first time: the sharp cheekbones and those giant green eyes. Her features loomed large, unbearably beautiful, as though she belonged to some glorious alien race. I fixed my inferior eyes on that face and felt it lift me out of my seat, out of my life for a moment. The warmth of Nathan’s hand in mine brought me back, held me down, made me thankful to be exactly where and who I was.

Nathan. That hand is gone, and has taken him with it. Or vice versa. Whatever. He’s gone.

So she gathered her accolades for the role in Sultan—not an Oscar, but a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and glowing reviews. She did more indie work for a while, spreading her roots through the Hollywood soil, building her rep as an indie darling, and then? She sold. Right. Out. She signed on to do a Michael Bay movie—something with a tsunami and killer robots. What a joke. But it was a huge hit with the masses and it made her famous. She promptly married her screenwriter boyfriend, bought her house here, and started having babies. Her first two came the standard two years apart—the boy an unconventional five-plus years later. What happened in the intervening years? Fertility issues like mine? Marital trouble? Or was the third child one of those “happy accidents”? Maybe it was none of the above. Maybe one day she woke up, hungering for another baby, and so she went and had one—just like that. I wonder if she’ll stop at three. Why should she, with others to do the messy work? I see her with the kids, but rarely with more than one at a time. The other moms in this neighborhood teeming with families pile their strollers with two, even three kids at once, struggling and cursing under their breaths as they push uphill toward the park. But the actress makes parenting look glamorous and fun. She’s always stylishly dressed, even in weekend clothes, and I can’t imagine her breaking a sweat. If I were a local mom, I would hate her. It isn’t as easy as you make it look! I would shout through her ground-floor windows. Imagine how my voice would pierce the cozy domestic scene! The kids would run to the windows, hands and faces pressed to the glass. The baby might burst into tears. The husband would furrow his handsome brow and start immediately for the door. Who goes there? I imagine him calling into the night. And the actress? She’d glance up for a moment with a distant, distracted smile, take a sip from her wineglass, and go back to her screen.


The actress’s baby is screaming his head off in front of my building. The nanny, a skinny strawberry blonde, leans her head close to his in the stroller and shushes him gently, waving a toy in his face and letting him grab it. He continues to scream. She rummages in the diaper bag slung across the stroller handles and then sighs. Finally she notices me, smoking on the front stoop, just a few feet away. We’ve exchanged smiles and brief greetings over the past months, whenever she’s passed by with the stroller. Once, I got up the nerve to say, “Cute boy,” and she replied, “Yes, but he’s a handful,” in a cheerful, maternal way. I fought the urge to ask if the baby was hers—knowing, of course, that it wasn’t—but hoping it would prompt her to share some tidbit about her boss. Even to hear her say the actress’s name would have given me a little thrill. “I’ve left his pacifier at home,” she says now. “Oh no,” I say, frowning sympathetically. The child’s screams seem to crescendo at the word pacifier. The nanny starts to turn around for home with him, shaking her head, when I stand abruptly and say, “Wait.” She looks up at me, takes in the cigarette still smoking in my hand. I drop it, crush it under my heel, and go down the steps to her. “I’ll watch him for a minute while you run back. It’s no trouble, really.” She starts to protest; I can see her weighing the convenience of going back without the cumbersome stroller versus the potential anger of her employers if they were to find out. “I don’t mind a screaming little one,” I say, looking her in the eye and placing a hand on her arm. “They live so close. It will only take you a second, right?” She glances back at her employer’s house—ten, fifteen steps away, tops!—then looks back at me. “Right,” she says. “Thank you. I won’t be a minute.” And she speed-walks down the block. So here I am, alone with the actress’s baby. He may be red-faced and screaming, but he is all mine. So delicious, waving his little arms in the air, arching his back against the straps that hold him in. I kneel down in front of him and wriggle my fingers in front of his face, making clucking noises with my tongue. He stares at me and screams even louder, writhes all the more powerfully in his seat. The poor thing! I start to unbuckle him. I will hold him to me, smell his head, brush my lips over his downy hair. But the damn buckles are so complicated, and before I can get him out, the nanny materializes beside me. She pops the pacifier in his mouth, thanks me profusely, and pushes the stroller along up the street.

Just like that, he’s gone. Gone like Nathan. Gone like the baby we never had. I drag myself back up the steps and inside.

Upstairs, everything’s a mess. The cat—the damn cat, Nathan’s cat—has tracked her litter through the kitchen again. I had the leak beneath the sink fixed days ago, but the cabinet still reeks of mildew. Romantic brownstone living! Trash piled in the can, dirty laundry piled in the hamper. Nathan used to do all that—clean up after the cat, take out the trash, take care of the laundry. I try to keep up but I’ve been barely functional since he left.

I’m not alone, though, I tell myself: I have my books. My student papers to grade. My students, I suppose. I have my colleagues at school, too—a few, at least, who aren’t self-important jerks, lecherous drunks, or socially awkward weirdos. Or all of those rolled into one (which would make: my department chair). I also have two or three old friends, one of whom I see regularly for lunch. That’s the sum total of my life, since Nathan left six weeks ago. Oh, and Cat, the stupid cat that Nathan’s had since grad school . . . who’s now been abandoned just like me. Here we are, unlikely pair in misery, doing our best to stay out of each other’s way. I feed her to keep her alive—that’s it.


I walk past the actress on my way home from the grocery store. Our eyes meet for a moment, then she looks away. You’re ugly, I think. Without meaning to. But it’s true—at least today, in this afternoon light, she looks too raw, too hugely featured. Her eyes bulge, her lips are almost obscenely plush, and her cheekbones jut beneath her thin skin. In the mirror at home, I push my fingers around my face. Small nose, thin lips, and nearly invisible cheekbones. But I’ve got fairy-tale eyes—bright blue, almond shaped. When the actress looked at me today, maybe she thought: You should be on the screen. Maybe that’s why she had to look away.

We’ve spoken only once, at last year’s block party. The neighborhood kids—including her two girls—were thrashing around inside the net walls of the bouncy house. Grown-ups were gathered in loose circles nearby, sitting on folding chairs or standing, chatting aimlessly, pleased by the excuse to drink beer at noon. I was standing in front of our house with my dish of watermelon and feta orzo salad in hand, waiting for Nathan to come down, when I saw her from the corner of my eye. She walked over to the food table, holding a bag from City Pantry, a gourmet food and kitchen gadgets shop new to the neighborhood. I made a beeline for the table, brandishing my dish. I flashed her a smile. Our eyes met. “Where’s that?” I blurted out, pointing at her bag. “What?” she said in her famously husky voice. “Oh. City Pantry. It’s just two blocks from here. Delicious stuff.” I nodded, watching her unload container after container of costly gourmet sides: Parmesan roasted acorn squash, portobello mushrooms sautéed in wine, grilled shrimp and octopus salad, braised bacon-wrapped endives—dishes it would take all day for some ragged woman like me to cook. I scrambled to think of what to say next, how to keep her there with me. “Looks good!” I said at last, hating what must be the desperate-looking grin on my face. But she smiled back, generous soul, and then floated away in her ankle-length burnt-orange sundress and floppy straw hat, back to her beautiful house. I watched her go, feeling melted inside. Like I’d been touched by the warm, immense hand of a goddess. When the feeling left a few moments later, shame replaced it. It crept up my neck in a hot flush. What had I said? “Looks good!” Like some half-wit. Some rube.

I’m interesting! I wanted to shout. I’m somebody, too! But then Nathan was beside me, slipping his arm around my waist, and the self-loathing dropped away. After an hour of chatting with neighbors, Nathan at my side, I’d forgotten the whole stupid scene. Well, not the scene, but at least I’d let go of the deep humiliation. I barely turned my head, later, when the actress reappeared, radiant and cool as ever. I could be immune to her sometimes, back then.

There’s a scene in the actress’s second movie, Girl with Dog, an earnest indie rom-com, where she tells her friend, “Love makes you interesting. It makes everyone interesting.” She delivers the line with such gusto, her green eyes bright and even slightly moist. The friend scoffs and says, “Yeah, right. Everyone but me.”


Today I decide to throw out all the meds. The Gonal, the Menopur, the Ganirelix Acetate—what was all that stuff I was injecting into my body? Hundreds of dollars’ worth of chemical compounds meant to make my defective eggs perform correctly for once, that’s what. After drinking my coffee-only breakfast, I dump it all in a giant black trash bag: the boxes of prefilled syringes and sterile pads and Band-Aids and alcohol wipes, and their bland, insulting optimism with them. I tie a knot at the top of the bag and carry it downstairs to toss in the bin. I hesitate for a second on the stoop. I could keep the stuff a little longer, in the hopes of finding someone new to drag through the same torturous cycle of hope, elation—our hands clasping and eyes meeting as the doctor describes how beautifully the embryo transfer went—followed by the toxic letdown of “Not Pregnant” appearing in the window of one of those damn expensive digital pee-sticks. Or I could leave the bag on the street for some other deficiently wombed woman—although from the looks of it around here, everyone but me is doing fine in that department. So forget it. The bag of meds goes in the trash. I’m done.

It feels good. Clean. Empty—like my womb. Ha.

The first appointment at the fertility clinic was the best. Nathan and I had found our solution—hooray! We sat, hands clasped in front of Dr. J, nodding our heads in unison at the test results, as if saying, She understands us, she understands our needs! And she did. Or so we thought. I spent hours of my life in that waiting room, and in the countless exam rooms the nurses would usher me into—to be weighed, measured, probed, and sometimes inseminated. I kept up a positive attitude for as long as I possibly could—making jokes with the doctor and nurses, offering up my veins to them and willingly splaying my legs. Eventually, all of our savings went down the drain. My marriage, too, though that drained away at a more leisurely pace. And I can’t blame it all on the cost and complexity of fertility treatments, can I? Or even on my—no, our, the doctor emphasized, but come on, it was my—infertility. Nathan was tested and his sperm was “perfect.” It wasn’t him, it was me. Dr. J herself grew increasingly cold with me as the weeks and months passed. Like I must be one of those bad patients, like I must be failing repeatedly on purpose. It wasn’t fair—and yet I understood her disgust. I felt it, too.

I went to yoga religiously back in those days. I remember feeling cleansed and purified after the intense hour and a half. Hopeful and hearty. Willowy and strong. Full of Buddhist platitudes and a sense of peace. I tried to keep going in the days after Nathan left, I tried to “clear my mind” and “open my heart” as the instructor suggested, but I was revolted by the stifling room and the stink of other people’s sweat—and, most of all, by my yoga instructor’s wish for “peace everywhere.” What about peace here? What about me? I raged inside.

Just the other day, Mrs. H said, “Where’s your husband?” I stared at her. Where’s yours? I wanted to say back. Dead and buried, she would have had to answer. I envy her that clear resolution. Better to be left for death than for . . . nothing at all, not even another woman! Better to have Nathan snug under the ground than out walking the world without me.


I wake with a heavy sludge in my stomach. I dreamed of Nathan last night. He was lost in a crowd of strangers, and I was pushing through the throng to reach him, screaming his name, seeing what I thought was the top of his head just a few feet in front of me. Always out of reach. I woke to nothingness. Dumb cat purring beside me in what used to be Nathan’s spot. My eyes itch just looking at her. I smack my hand down on the comforter and watch the cat rear back. But then she calms, and resettles, as if nothing has happened. As if I’m no one, nothing at all.


Nathan and I moved here to be near the park, for our imaginary future brood. Five years later, here I sit, still strategically, uselessly close to the park. I haven’t been there in weeks. Months, maybe. What’s there for me? You should exercise more, Nathan would say, sweat beading his brow after his early morning run around the park’s central loop. I’d glare at him over my second cup of coffee. I’m movie-star thin, I’d say. That isn’t the point, he’d counter. And so it went.

Kale shakes. Blueberry-and-banana smoothies, with ginger tossed in. Wheatgrass shots. Hold the bun, please. Gluten-free chips or pretzels. Gluten-free bread. Gluten-free . . . whateverthefuck. Our pantry could have stocked a natural foods shop. I think he thought surely it would rub off on me one day. Especially when the rounds of IVF continued to be unsuccessful. We should try everything, right? he’d say, meaning you should try everything, waving one of his damn smoothies in my face. Fuck off, I’d reply. Did he really think kale would get “us” pregnant? I was constantly moving his organic crap to the back of the fridge so I could make room for my Diet Cokes and cream cheese.

I thought up ways to murder him, when we fought. I thought I could smother him in his sleep, or lace his kale smoothie with something untraceable, blame his early death on a (nonexistent) congenital heart condition. I was always afraid this would happen, I’d say to the police, wringing my hands. There was one bad blowup we had, when I wanted to take a break, let a few months pass between IVF cycles. This was after several failed cycles in a row, and I felt exhausted by the unending clinic visits followed by the vicious little needle pricks at home, all leading to: zero. Nathan was supposed to be helping—he’d been all too eager to do the injections in the beginning—but as we both gradually lost heart, he left it all to me. There I sat, stabbing my belly and thigh. Alternating between the left and right sides every day. Feeling the medicine burn as it spread, gritting my teeth against the pain. And yet he despised the idea of my taking a break! Said we couldn’t afford to let any time pass, given “the state of your eggs.” Accused me of being selfish, negligent, indifferent. I screamed at him that I wanted to rip his head off. And I did want to: I imagined doing it, in graphic detail, after he’d stormed out of the apartment. When he came back we made up, as usual, though each blowup brought us one baby step (ha!) closer to the end.


Nathan and I moved into our apartment at the same time another couple moved into the duplex downstairs. Dillon, the husband, was a software engineer, and Farrah, the wife, worked in pharmaceutical advertising. They were one of the new breed infesting our neighborhood: generic rich folk. I despised them in general but liked them in particular—or tolerated them, anyway. We made a few empty gestures toward getting together, having a drink at one of our places, going out for brunch, but it never materialized. We had our lives; they had theirs. They were always friendly, smiling, and helpful when something went wrong in the building. Then Farrah got pregnant, right in the middle of our baby-making hell.

It was bad enough that I had to watch her huffing up and down the stairs, holding—no, clutching!—the rail like the sanctified vessel she was, carrying what must feel like the world’s most precious cargo as her belly grew and grew. But her personality changed, too. She started to send me frosty texts about things in the building that bothered her, especially as she feathered her nest. Could you or Nathan sweep the stoop once in a while? I’ve had to do it twice this week. Or: Would you move those air-conditioning units out of the downstairs hallway? We’ll need to store our stroller there, she’d write, without preamble of any kind, not even a Hi! At first I was accommodating, writing back a cheery Sure! And sending Nathan down to do her bidding. But then I’d go upstairs and jab myself with a needle full of some hormone that would give me insomnia and no babies. No babies no babies no babies. She’d done it effortlessly, she and her husband, at least as far as I knew: he’d stuck his dick in her, the sperm had met the right egg, and presto! The way God intended it. Not this artificial way we were going about things. I thought, too, that Farrah had begun to look at me askance for my blatant unpregnantness. Nathan told me I was imagining it—of course he did! And of course he was right, I agreed, although inside I knew differently. So when her texts grew more and more passive-aggressive, I decided to strike back with passive aggression of my own. I used silence: whenever she sent one of her obnoxious requests, I simply didn’t respond. Nathan would sigh, shake his head, and tell me to “be reasonable.” Did Farrah’s husband, the mild-mannered engineer, tell her the same? Be reasonable, Farrah, they probably can’t have kids. Have pity on her. But I didn’t want her damn pity. And as far as I could tell, she wasn’t offering it. The looks she gave me weren’t sympathetic; they were disapproving. Why can’t she have kids? they seemed to ask. What’s wrong with her?

One day, late in her pregnancy, I ran into Farrah in our shared front garden. Rather than her usual scowl, she beamed a brilliant, toothy smile my way and I saw the old her, the charming brunette with the deep brown eyes who got whatever she wanted, including that massive belly. I couldn’t help responding in kind. I smiled back. “Have you heard of Virtual Doorman?” she asked, almost gleefully. “No,” I said, instantly on guard. Our doorbell had never worked reliably—sometimes it buzzed, sometimes it didn’t—so Farrah and Dillon had to sign for our packages now and then. As her due date drew nearer, she seemed to find this arrangement increasingly intolerable. Had to sign for a package while you were out, she’d text. I was in the shower when they rang. I’d grit my teeth and write nothing in return. “It’s a service you can install that answers the door when you’re out,” she said now, in an excited rush. “It can even let deliverymen in to drop packages in the downstairs hall. I think it might be just the thing!” Of course. That explained her sudden upward mood swing. “Oh!” I said, matching her tone. “That’s great, we’ll definitely look into it!” Then I gave her a friendly wave. I promptly forgot about the stupid Virtual Doorman, even after she’d texted me the link to the site.

Fast-forward to two weeks later: Nathan and I were out in the city one Saturday, exploring the waterfront area, holding hands and sipping coffee and feeling positive that this time, this round of IVF had worked. I felt pregnant-ish, I thought. For sure. My boobs were sore, and my very punctual period was at least a day late. Nathan was so inspired that he’d begun doing the injections for me again. All was well. Then my phone dinged with a text from Farrah. Just had to sign for another package of yours. Have you ordered the Virtual Doorman yet?? it said. I felt remarkably calm. She couldn’t rattle me, not then. I showed the text to Nathan, who raised his eyebrows as if he could finally see what I’d been saying about her. “You should just say NO, in all caps,” he suggested, and we laughed. So I wrote, NO. And a moment later my phone dinged again, like she’d been staring at her screen just waiting for a snarky reply. Why not? her text said. It felt like we were circling each other, fists raised, flinging insults, even though neither of us had said anything remotely insulting. Because I’m busy, I wrote, knowing that Farrah had just quit her job to stay home with the baby. Some of us have work to do, I added. When Nathan read my text, he looked playfully shocked. We high-fived—blissful, triumphant team members that we were. We won! I kept thinking all day. Until late at night, when my period came.

Nathan went behind my back and ordered the damn Virtual Doorman, as if we needed a remote service answering our door—as if we could afford it! When I confronted him about it, he shrugged his shoulders to say, It was fun being on your team while it lasted. I could sense Farrah’s smug satisfaction from two floors up. Is that when things between Nathan and me really began to fray? Or had it already begun, and this just accelerated our undoing?

I watched Farrah’s belly grow bigger and bigger, watched her move more and more slowly up the stoop. Meanwhile, I’d gone through two consecutive egg harvestings, a promising embryo transfer, and two weeks later: zip. I’d crammed a whole pineapple down my throat, like all the blogs said to do after IVF, and rested, and taken my folic acid, and still the squirming little life, the tiny light they’d shown me on the ultrasound screen during the procedure, had winked out and died. Why hadn’t those slimy progesterone suppositories I’d stuck up me three times a day made my womb hospitable? Why did nothing ever work? Dr. J was reserved in offering her condolences this time; she pursed her lips. “Have you thought about trying acupuncture, too?” she asked. I had no intention of submitting to even more needles—I’d had enough of them, and so had my bruised belly—but I didn’t say that, I just said I’d think about it. I always said I’d think about it. Telling Nathan the news was difficult, but he swallowed his disappointment and comforted me, told me we’d try again and it would work next time, blah blah blah. I didn’t believe it as he said it, and I certainly don’t believe it now, knowing he was probably beginning to plan his escape by then.

When the baby came—Farrah’s baby—she started making a habit of leaving trash bags filled with dirty diapers outside her door, presumably for Dillon to take out when he got home from work. I couldn’t believe it! Ms. Perfect, Ms. Persnickety! It wasn’t too bad at first, but as the baby grew, his shits started to reek. Jesus. I’d come home midday and it would hit me like a hot, wet, horrible wall: that sickly-sweet, unmistakable odor. Do you smell that? I’d ask Nathan. He’d look up distractedly. What? As if he lived in a different building, on a different plane. As if it were me who stunk, not the precious baby’s poop. I started carrying the bags out to the trash. Day after day I did this, and day after day I waited for the text from her that would say, Thank you, I’m sorry for the smell. Or Forgive my laziness and rudeness—you’re a lifesaver. Or How would I get by without you, neighbor? I would show it to Nathan and he’d see what a necessary angel I was. Needless to say, the text never came. Eventually Farrah just stopped putting trash bags in the hall, and that was the end of that.

Farrah and Dillon moved out just after Nathan left. She was hugely pregnant with their second child; I was dragging myself around like the newly risen dead. “We’ve outgrown the place,” Dillon said cheerfully, when I ran into him one day on the stoop and plastered a smile on my face to distract him from my red-rimmed, puffy eyes. They’d be moving to a condo in the city, he said. A spacious, three-bedroom, two-bath overlooking the river. They’d go on to have a whole brood, I was sure—like everyone else in this place. The more kids you had, the more prosperous it meant you were. Meanwhile there I sat on the stoop: zero kids, zero husband, a woman-shaped shade. Haunting an apartment that was empty except for my ex-husband’s cat.

I despised Dillon and Farrah, but their absence made the house feel even emptier. There seemed to be no sign of new people coming to fill the vacant duplex, either, which was weird, given the cutthroat rental market around here. There were always new suckers to lure in, people willing or desperate enough to pay an extraordinary amount of money for a small set of rooms they could run through like rats. But nothing. No one. I’d begun to suspect that Charles, our absentee landlord, who had raised his children here and then fled to Miami in retirement, was planning to sell the building. He’d bought the place for peanuts years ago, and now he could sell it for $3 million at least. I imagined he was waiting me out. Last time our lease had come up, Nathan had negotiated a discount in exchange for paying a year’s worth of rent in advance—clever man. Now I worried that Charles would kick me out in March, when the lease expired. I could e-mail and ask him point-blank if he planned to sell, of course, and at least resolve the anxiety of not knowing, but I didn’t want to draw attention to the situation. As if asking him might give him the idea to sell, if he didn’t have it already. I stayed silent and tried not to think about it—about what I would do or where I would go when the building sold or the money ran out. Next March was still months away.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Looker includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


In this taut, riveting debut, an unhappily childless and recently separated woman becomes fixated on her neighbor—the actress. Though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment lies between these two women. The actress, a celebrity with a charmed career, 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.

An interaction with the actress at the annual block party takes a disastrous turn and what began as an innocent preoccupation turns into a stunning—and lethal—unravelling. Taking up questions of success, celebrity, women’s roles, obsession, and privacy, Looker deftly reveals the perils of envy.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

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?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Read some of the poems the narrator assigns in class: Emily Dickinson’s “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” and “Come slowly – Eden!”; Yosa Buson’s “The camellia”; Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; John Donne’s “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”; Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel,” “Lady Lazarus,” and “Fever 103°”; Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnet (10)”; and Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art.” How do these poems deepen your understanding of the novel and the narrator’s mindset?

2. The narrator finds solace—and obsession—in the actress’s films. Are there movies or actors you feel particularly connected to? What and who are they?

3. To read more about Laura Sims and Looker, go to

About The Author

Photograph © Jen Lee

Laura Sims is the author of How Can I Help You and the critically acclaimed novel Looker, now in development for television with eOne and Emily Mortimer’s King Bee Productions. An award-winning poet, Sims has published four poetry collections; her essays and poems have appeared in The New RepublicBoston ReviewConjunctionsElectric LitGulf Coast, and more. She and her family live in New Jersey, where she works part-time as a reference librarian and hosts the library’s lecture series.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (October 1, 2019)
  • Length: 208 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501199127

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Raves and Reviews

"In prose that moves between lyrical and caterwauling, the poet Laura Sims has pulled off the high-wire act of making bitterness delicious." —Vogue

"[Looker] is an ephemeral fiction with a hard landing—like a window, seen in passing, that glows and goes dark." —The New Yorker

“Sims’s debut is a breathless and unrelenting portrait of one woman’s unraveling.” —Greer Hendricks, New York Times bestselling co-author of The Wife Between Us

"An unflinching portrayal of women looking upon each other as disturbingly as men do.” —The New Statesman

"A perfect, dark pleasure. . . . A rare debut filled with gorgeous sentences, savory twists, and shot through with ferocious truths, this is the kind of book that can only be written by an author who is thrillingly unafraid." —Mona Awad, author of Bunny

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