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Life Sentencesby Laura Lippman
"From its gripping opening pages about a burned-out author's bookstore reading, Laura Lippman's Life Sentences may be the most absorbing, entertaining mystery published in the last year. Lippman does it all, from creating vivid, three-dimensional characters, to painting a beautifully detailed portrait of her hometown, Baltimore, to crafting a plot that drives readers along at a fast clip while simultaneously building suspense as one dramatic revelation leads to another." Chuck Leddy, The Boston Globe (read the entire Boston Globe review)
Synopses & Reviews
Author Cassandra Fallows has achieved remarkable success by baring her life on the page. Her two widely popular memoirs continue to sell briskly, acclaimed for their brutal, unexpurgated candor about friends, family, lovers—and herself. But now, after a singularly unsuccessful stab at fiction, Cassandra believes she may have found the story that will enable her triumphant return to nonfiction.
When Cassandra was a girl, growing up in a racially diverse middle-class neighborhood in Baltimore, her best friends were all black: elegant, privileged Donna; sharp, shrewd Tisha; wild and worldly Fatima. A fifth girl orbited their world—a shy, quiet, unobtrusive child named Calliope Jenkins—who, years later, would be accused of killing her infant son. Yet the boy's body was never found and Calliope's unrelenting silence on the subject forced a judge to jail her for contempt. For seven years, Calliope refused to speak and the court was finally forced to let her go. Cassandra believes this still unsolved real-life mystery, largely unknown outside Baltimore, could be her next bestseller.
But her homecoming and latest journey into the past will not be welcomed by everyone, especially by her former friends, who are unimpressed with Cassandra's success—and are insistent on their own version of their shared history. And by delving too deeply into Calliope's dark secrets, Cassandra may inadvertently unearth a few of her own—forcing her to reexamine the memories she holds most precious, as the stark light of truth illuminates a mother's pain, a father's betrayal . . . and what really transpired on a terrible day that changed not only a family but an entire country.
It would be difficult to discuss Laura Lippman's new novel, "Life Sentences," without reference to "What the Dead Know," the 2007 novel that was both a commercial and artistic breakthrough for the Baltimore-based writer. "What the Dead Know" started with a real-life tragedy — the disappearance of two sisters, ages 10 and 12, from the Wheaton Plaza, Maryland shopping mall in 1975 — and proceeded to... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Lippman's fictional account of the suffering their loss imposed on their family, the arrival of a woman claiming to be one of the sisters and the final revelation of what had happened to the girls. It's a powerful story and a near-perfect exercise in storytelling. "Life Sentences" was also inspired by a real-life story, that of a Baltimore woman whose young son disappeared, whereupon she refused to make any statement and spent seven years in jail for contempt of court. Lippman's heroine in the novel, Cassandra Fallows, a successful writer, knew a girl in grade school who, as an adult, had that same experience. Cassandra sets out to write a book about herself and her childhood friends and how this girl, Callie Jenkins, eventually went to jail under suspicion of murdering her son. Cassandra returns to her home town of Baltimore and seeks the memories of old friends who no longer feel terribly friendly toward her — and whose memories often differ dramatically from her own. In the third grade, Cassandra, who is white, became best friends with Donna, Tisha and Fatima, all of whom are African American, although race didn't matter much to them in those days. Callie Jenkins, also African American, was a plain, timid girl who was never really part of their circle. As the story unfolds, the novel's great strength lies in its characters, particularly Cassandra. This is a sly portrait of a certain kind of writer or journalist who is brash, driven by ego and convinced that getting the story justifies all kinds of bad behavior. Tisha, refusing to talk to her childhood friend, declares, "Maybe we're all just done being supporting players in the Cassandra Fallows show, starring Cassandra Fallows as Cassandra Fallows." Cassandra has written two best-selling memoirs, one about her childhood and the other about her two marriages and many affairs. Her friends are angered by what they see as mistakes — about them — in the first book and put off by the sexual candor of the second. Sex is never far from Cassandra's thoughts. She's having an affair with a married New York stockbroker, who's handy because he can be scheduled well in advance. However, she forgets him when she meets big, good-looking Reg Barr, a lawyer who is Tisha's brother and Donna's husband. Reg and Cassandra are both sexual adventurers, and their first interview quickly proceeds to the horizontal. As Cassandra admits, she "had never been very good at denying herself the men she wanted." And yet she is nearing 50, with many fears and uncertainties. Here she reflects on someone she has met: "What was it like to be an ugly woman? Cassandra, like every woman she knew, was full of self-doubt about her own appearance, had several moments every day when she was disappointed by the face she saw in the mirror. The older she got, the more she felt that way. Yet she also knew, on some level, that she would never be described as ugly." Lippman offers many delightful insights into the people in Cassandra's life. Cassandra says of her father, a college professor who leaves his wife for a younger woman: "My father believed in unconditional love, but only under certain conditions." She writes of her married New York lover: "Her hunch was that Bernard was a serial monogamist on parallel tracks — he was faithful to Tilda, he was faithful to his lovers. Sort of like a subway line with an express track and a local track." Cassandra and her three childhood friends are the novel's central characters, and Lippman looks deeply into how they have related to one another over four decades, from pigtails to facelifts. Near the end, Cassandra reflects poignantly that she would like "to have Tisha as a friend again, to have someone in her life who knew the whole of her. Not just the parts she had written down and shaped, but every ragged detail, every playground moment, every tiny triumph, every enormous failure. Even the frowsy hair." By then, we see Cassandra as part monster, part little girl lost. But what of Callie, the friend who went to jail rather than answer questions about her son? In time, Lippman reveals what Callie did and why, but that seems to me the least effective part of the novel. In "What the Dead Know," the missing sisters were absolutely central to the story: Everything flowed from the horror of their absence. Here, the mystery of Callie's son is overshadowed by Lippman's tough-minded portrait of Cassandra and her sometime friends. But theirs is a strong and vivid story, one that will intrigue many readers — especially, I suspect, women who find echoes of their own lives and friendships in this drama. Reviewed by Patrick Anderson, whose e-mail is mondaythrillers(at symbol)aol.com, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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In this blazing stand-alone novel of twisting suspense, the "New York Times"-bestselling author of "What the Dead Know" raises difficult, illuminating questions about the nature of memory and truth.
“From its gripping opening pages…Life Sentences may be the most absorbing, entertaining mystery published in the last year.”
USA Today calls Laura Lippman, “A writing powerhouse,” and Life Sentences powerfully confirms it. Past and present, truth and memory collide in this searing novel from a New York Times bestselling author whose novels have won virtually every major prize bestowed for crime fiction—from the Edgar® to the Anthony to the Agatha to the Nero Wolfe Award. As she did in her blockbuster What the Dead Know, Lippman takes a brief hiatus from her popular series character, Baltimore p.i. Tess Monaghan, to tell a riveting story of deceptions and dangerously fragile truths that People magazine says, “Succeeds brilliantly.”
About the Author
Laura Lippman grew up in Baltimore and returned to her hometown in 1989 to work as a journalist. After writing seven books while still a full-time reporter, she left the Baltimore Sunto focus on fiction. The author of multiple New York Timesbestsellers including What the Dead Knowand Life Sentences, she has won numerous awards for her work, including the Edgar, Quill, Anthony, Nero Wolfe, Agatha, Gumshoe, Shamus, Barry, and Macavity.
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