Image Credit: Kate Brady. 2009/Wikimedia Commons
I was a nail-biter in high school. I stopped when I went to college, embarrassed by what now seemed like a childish lack of control. Last week, Helen Schulman’s new anxiety-inducing novel, Lucky Dogs, made me relapse. But I’m okay with it. This time, nail-biting feels like victory. Published over the summer, Schulman’s latest novel, Lucky Dogs, follows the story of two women: an actress, Meredith (“Merry”), and an Israeli spy named Nina. They’re connected by a serial sexual predator named the “Rug,” a powerful Hollywood producer who raped Merry as she was trying to become a Hollywood star. If the story sounds familiar, it’s because it is.
Lucky Dogs is based on the real life saga of Harvey Weinstein, Rose McGowan, and Stella Penn Pechanac. Weinstein, of course, is a now infamous Hollywood producer, sentenced to 39 years in prison for multiple counts of rape. Rose McGowan is the model for Schulman’s “Merry,” while Pechanac, the model for Nina, was a member of the Israel-based espionage group Black Cube, hired by Weinstein to prevent McGowan from publishing a tell-all memoir.
Schulman writes from the perspective of both the main female characters at various points throughout the book. Merry offers a manic, dizzying, Xanax-and-wine-fueled narrative reminiscent of Bukowski; while Nina takes a slower, darker approach, born of her methodical sleuth work as an undercover spy. (Breaks from Nina’s ravenous narration were much appreciated by my fingernails).
Schulman starts with the story of Merry. She grew up in a traumatic and emotionally starved household, with a wandering, alcoholic father, and a mentally ill mother. From an early age she moves around a lot and her restlessness never lets up. Beautiful, razor-sharp, and wild, she’s a self-identified stray—and easy prey for hungry Hollywood moguls. After a traumatic meeting with the “Rug” where she’s raped (not for the first time), she starts to unravel: “I’ve always pictured my mind sort of like an egg, separate from the gray matter that controlled everything else,” she muses. “But after the Rug, that clear slime, the albumen of my psyche, started to slither around inside the rest of my cranium, and then the yolk of my being … broke and a yellow liquid viciously followed, dripping, dripping, dripping.” (Despite everything, Merry retains her twisted sense of humor.)
We follow Merry to Paris, where she flees to escape the press and an NDA. Here she meets Nina, an enigmatic and spellbinding German consultant that works with “W2,” a women’s rights group. They bond over sexual assault and caramel beurre salè ice cream. Merry is smitten. Finally, someone that cares about her! Her story will be heard! People are good! It feels borderline unbearable, witnessing this young woman merrily (pun not intended) walking into the jaws of yet another hungry beast.
It turns out that Nina, whose real name is Smadar, has her own reasons for paying Merry such warm attention. Her childhood was marked by unthinkable trauma and abuse in the midst of the Serbian civil war. After her father dies, her mother manages to move both of them to Israel, where Nina, also an aspiring actress, grows up and eventually joins Dark Star, a fictional version of Black Cube. Still, Smadar’s trauma has left her hollow: there’s no empathy, no humanity. All bones and beauty, she turns herself into a weapon to be wielded by others against their chosen victims. And Merry is her next target.
As Schulman puts it in a preface to her book, “How could one woman do this to another woman?” As a woman, the question sank deep into my core. Betrayal from the same gender cuts deeper, and the answer feels more profound and isolating. Schulman’s metaphor of the stray dog hits on the nail here: You must fend for yourself.
Schulman interweaves the voices of both of these women throughout her novel. As we move from Hollywood to Paris, and from Serbia to Israel, then back to Hollywood again, Schulman forces us to acknowledge a merciless truth: friendships are fleeting, fame is fragile, money expendable—but trauma endures. The wounds of our past leave scabs (in Merry’s case, one she keeps picking at) which then turn into scars, but never really go away—especially in instances of sexual abuse.
The author offers no consolation, because in real life there isn’t. Yes, today Weinstein is in jail, but the #MeToo movement is far from over, it’s only a sliver of justice in a world that systemically supports abuse. His victims (and countless others) will continue to carry the marks on their body, the kind that have no over-the-counter solution.
So because there’s no happy ending (in life or in the book), Schulman offers what she can, a satisfactorily physical moment of closure: Merry literally sinks her teeth into the meat of her aggressors. She’s abandoned femininity and found her inner rabid dog. She’s starved, wounded, angry. She’s hilarious and triumphant. “I was a 100 percent bleached-blond wolverine!” I couldn’t help but feel a pang of recognition (minus the blonde hair). When my fingernails grow back, maybe they’ll look like claws.
Paloma Velasco is an MA candidate in Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at the New School for Social Research.