Looker

A Novel

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Ships on or around January 8, 2019

About The Book

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—at once a propulsive Hitchcockian thriller and a fearlessly original portrait of the perils of envy.

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.

Introduction

In this taut and thrilling debut, an unraveling woman, unhappily childless and recently separated, becomes fixated on her neighbor—the beautiful, famous actress. The unnamed narrator can’t help noticing with wry irony that, though she and the actress live just a few doors apart, they are separated by a chasm of professional success and personal fulfillment. 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. Taking up questions of success, celebrity, women’s roles, and privacy, Looker interrogates the depths of obsession—and 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 https://www.laurasims.net/.

About The Author

Photograph © Jen Lee

Laura Sims is the author of Looker, a novel; four books of poetry, most recently Staying Alive; and the editor of Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. She lives outside of New York City with her family.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 2019)
  • Length: 192 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501199110

Raves and Reviews

“Tense, twisted and briskly paced, poet Laura Sims's debut novel, Looker, is the progressively disturbing story of one woman's grief-fueled spiral downward to an irredeemable rock bottom… Somewhat surprisingly, the most disturbing thing about Looker is the creeping sense of complicity that Sims engenders in the reader… By the end, Sims compels 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.”
Southern Living, Best New Books Winter 2019

“Jealousy rears its ugly head in Sims’s chilling and riveting debut. 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, starred review

“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.”
Booklist

“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

"A perfect, dark pleasure...propelled by a woman whose obsession with a famous actress spurs one irredeemable trespass after another. 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 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl

“With an agile precision reminiscent of Lydia Davis, Laura Sims captures the obsessiveness of a woman who unravels after the collapse of her marriage. A taut, gripping portrait, all the more sinister for its elegance.”
 —Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks

 “Like Polanski’s “Repulsion,” Laura Sims’s intense, gripping first novel shoehorns us into a gathering sense of dread, heightened at every turn by our sympathy for her relentlessly unraveling protagonist. The precise, observant writing slips through the skin without ever calling attention to itself.”
—Peter Straub, author of A Dark Matter and Interior Darkness

“A tightly coiled novel about the poison of resentment. With arresting candor, Laura Sims reveals how fatally it can destroy one's relationship to the world.”
—Idra Novey, author of Those Who Knew 

"This riveting cautionary tale chronicles the catastrophic downward spiral of a woman whose situation exposes the fragility of human happiness. In language as piercing as the story itself, Sims offers an intense portrait of obsession. Looker is the work of a fierce and fearless writer."
—Helen Phillips, author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat

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