Book review: Ivy Pochoda's excellent 'These Women' illuminates those who live in the margins

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"These Women" by Ivy Pochoda. - HarperCollins Publishers/HarperCollins Publishers/TNS

“These Women” by Ivy Pochoda; Ecco (352 pages, $27.99)

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Ivy Pochoda finds beauty in the gritty side, hope where others see limited options and grace and strength in those who live on the margins as do the characters in “These Women,” the excellent fourth novel from this California author.

Loneliness, courage and the strength to go on swirl through the lives of “These Women,” each of whom Pochoda explores with compassion and empathy as they try to survive South Central Los Angeles’ mean streets.

At the center is fish shack owner Dorian Williams who drifts through the days, mourning and haunted by the murder of her teenage daughter Lecia more than 15 years ago. Lecia allegedly was the last victim of a serial killer who was never captured and who targeted prostitutes, which Lecia was not.

Dorian couldn’t save her daughter, so she tries to help others such as Julianna, for whom Lecia used to babysit. Now Julianna cobbles together out a living as a cocktail waitress, part-time exotic dancer and quasi-prostitute, daily dreaming of a better life as a photographer yet ruled by her drug habit and an addiction to hard living. Despite her intelligence and insight, the diminutive LAPD detective Essie Perry has more in common with “These Women” than she lets on. At work, Essie sees “circles and patterns” in crimes that her colleagues don’t, yet too often her theories are dismissed.

Feelia Jefferies knows too well how violence can permeate lives — she may be the only survivor of that serial killer. Performance artist Marella Colwin often moved from one war-torn country to another with her parents, “but Los Angeles was the only place where they seemed afraid.” These women, among others, are driven by fear that the serial killer has resurfaced.

The women’s connections to each other deliver layers of insight to the plot of “These Women.” Pochoda delves deep to explore each woman’s psyche while finding the humanity in the smallest details such as Dorian’s care in preparing fried shrimp and chicken to feed the prostitutes who gather daily behind her food shack.

Julianna’s yearning that her cell-phone photographs of other dancers be considered art is reaffirmed by another character: “These women, the powerful mess of them. The confidence fading to vacancy. The power dissolving into despair.…The strength and desperation. Now that’s art.” Essie wants each person to matter, but too often “These Women” are ignored — “a disrespect almost worse than murder,” thinks another character.

Pochoda’s fine character studies have imbued each of her four novels, taking another leap forward in the stunning “These Women.”

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