by Elizabeth Spencer

Lakewood is the debut novel of Megan Giddings, fiction editor at The Offing and a senior features editor at The Rumpus. Released in March, Lakewood came into the world just as we were hunkering down to slow the spread of Covid-19. That unfortunate timing may explain why an otherwise timely novel isn’t getting the attention it deserves. Luckily, Giddings has written an “instant classic” about class, race, and the human condition. Whether you pick it up now or in the future, you can find something relatable in the story of Lena Johnson, a Black millennial college student who leaves school to enroll in a mysterious research study.

“How much do people value money over themselves?” muses Lena near the end of the novel. After more than two months in The Lakewood Project, a government-run “series of research studies about mind, memory, personality, and perception,” Lena is even less sure than she was at the beginning that the physical and psychological damage are worth the generous stipend and health insurance for her mother, Deziree, who suffers from seizures.

Megan Gibbings

Before Lakewood, Lena attended college in Michigan as a scholarship student and lived with her best friend Tanya, who is also Black and whose parents are both lawyers, putting her in a higher economic class than Lena. The novel opens with a funeral for Lena’s grandmother, Toni, who had taken care of Lena and her mother. When they get home that night, Lena’s mother gives her “a large envelope that was stuffed to the limits” with bills, invoices, and insurance statements. 

Since 2013, but especially during the summer of 2020, protesters across America have been asking the country to affirm that Black Lives Matter. As a novelist, Giddings illustrates how much a Black life is worth without access to affordable healthcare and a living wage. If Lena’s mother didn’t have chronic health problems, Lena could continue college on scholarship and take one of the ordinary part-time jobs she finds on Craigslist before The Lakewood Project.

Instead, Lena signs a contract with a nondisclosure agreement and the amounts of money she or her family would receive for various adverse outcomes such as death, brain damage, blindness, and even the loss of a foot:

“It was the healthcare. Her mom could start getting Botox again for her migraines, go to the recommended physical therapist. She could always afford her medication and being hospitalized again. A new wheelchair or cane for when she was having episodes … Lena could give her mom something her grandma couldn’t: a stable life. Routine.”

I’ve always appreciated novels in which money (who has it, who doesn’t, what it can and can’t buy you, how to get more of it) is a major driver of plot. After all, since humans invented the concept of money and started exchanging it for goods and services instead of bartering, currency has joined other lifegiving resources such as water, sunlight, and food as something we can’t live without. In a prosperous society like America’s, money is also a way to mark your identity, to choose where to live, what car to buy, which school to send your kids to. 

One thing that distinguishes the U.S. from other prosperous societies is our lack of universal healthcare. Lakewood illustrates the connection between money, healthcare, and freedom. Lena’s first memory of her mother is Deziree having a seizure in the kitchen. From that point on, Toni and then Lena must find a way not only to provide financially for the family, but also to pay the portion of healthcare and prescription costs that insurance doesn’t cover. In America, your dignity is inseparable from your wallet and whether or not it has a health insurance card inside.

As soon as Lena visits Great Lakes Shipping Company to apply for the research study, she relinquishes her dignity along with her privacy:

“The woman was wearing a navy pantsuit with an American flag pinned on the lapel. There was a badge clipped to her waistband. Walking over to her, Lena bumped into a small table and knocked over a stack of magazines. When she bent to pick them up, the woman told her to just leave it. Her tone was as if Lena had spent hours knocking over the magazines and picking them up and straightening them, just to knock them over again, and she couldn’t take it anymore.”

Once the research study is underway, there are many instances where Lena feels treated like a child or childish herself, wonders why human beings would do these things to each other, and asks the staff why they work here. Yet, before she joined the Lakewood Project, Lena endured a humiliating interview for a $9.25/hour job at a burrito place and researched selling her eggs only to learn that “there was not much of a demand for African-American eggs.” However, there seems to be a demand for non-white research study participants. When Lena arrives at Great Lakes Shipping Company, the “front” for the research study, she notices that almost all the staff and observers are white, whereas all but one of the participants are “black or Indian or Latinx.” 

Before I started Lakewood, I worried it would be too scary for my tastes. I’ve never been the type to watch horror movies or read thrillers. However, this book is too realistic to be scary in the entertaining sense of the word. The events described are perfectly plausible and the effect on the reader is to feel chilled, to recognize that this could happen to you. In fact, one of my favorite things in the novel are the daily reports the study participants receive with notes about what they “did” that day, in case friends or family ask how their jobs are going. Anyone whose ever dealt with the weirdness and mundanity of the 9-5 office experience will relate to anecdotes like a pinching headset, smelly microwave, and food that disappears from the communal fridge.

Now that I’ve finished reading Lakewood, I plan to take The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks off my shelf and read this nonfiction book about some of the same ethical questions at play in Giddings’ work of fiction. I hope this novel gets more attention. I would recommend it to anyone reflecting on our current moment of history, as well as anyone who loves novels with smart female protagonists juggling universal concerns of dating, schoolwork, and friendship along with some not-so-universal problems.