Lakewood by Megan Giddings

Some books take me a longer time than usual to read, especially this last year when the heaviness of the moments in the pandemic that we have endured made some books weigh more heavily than they otherwise would. Lakewood is giving me this vibe, and I find myself turning the novel over in my mind months after closing the book. The issues Lakewood explores seem so relevant at the moment. Poignant scenes were even more so against the background of the pandemic. The plight of a young woman struggling to find work that will afford adequate healthcare for her ailing mother, an unsafe work environment but no choice if she is to provide for her family, medical experimentation against the backdrop of a developing vaccine, and how to convince people to take it.

Lakewood is the story of Lena Johnson. She is a young woman who is a first-generation college student with a year under her belt when her grandmother dies. Lena is left to shoulder the burden of family debt and the management of her mother’s healthcare. Her mom, Deziree, suffers from a mysterious medical condition that causes seizures, difficulty speaking and can interfere with her functioning and holding down a job. Lena makes a list of all the bills and responsibilities that she has to pick up in the wake of her grandmother, Miss Toni’s, death. She finishes out the semester and attempts to find a job for the summer. Out of options she considers taking a job as a fast-food restaurant mascot, and in a humiliating interview is forced to smile and show her teeth. A moment that will echo later in the novel as Lena tries to qualify for the Lakewood experiment. 

Finally, Lena receives a mysterious letter inviting her to participate in a research study on “mind, memory, personality and perception”. This is the titular Lakewood Project, and it will pay the family medical bills and expenses, plus give Lena a generous stipend to fund a better life. Though the first meetings are a little weird, the promise of the study is too good and Lena leaves home to live at Lakewood and participates in a host of experiments escalating in mysteriousness and severity mainly to provide for her family.

I really liked the way the narrative was constructed. Most of the book is told in the third person. As she moves through Lakewood, meets the other participants, adjusts to her routine, and is introduced to her watchers, her experiences are recorded through a necessary remove. As she gets increasingly desperate in her circumstances at Lakewood, she switches to the first person while writing these anguished letters to her best friend from home. In them, she muses on the nature of the experiences at Lakewood and the danger surrounding her.

If you consider reading Lakewood, I have to warn you that if you like for your books to be unambiguous with clear resolutions, then this may not be the book for you. I won’t go any details in any of this so as not to spoil anyone, but I’ll note that there were no easy answers to all that had transpired.

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