Lynne Perednia, June 22, 2009
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Cassandra Fallows has made a living -- a rather successful living -- writing two memoirs. An attempt at fiction did all right, but sales and critical response are so tepid that she is wondering how to return to the writing she has done best.
When she hears the name of a former schoolmate on the news, Cassandra thinks she has found her next subject. Calliope Jenkins came late to the circle of friends, and was a quiet child. But it was still a shock when her second baby disappeared after the first one was gone, and she would never explain what happened. Calliope spent seven years in jail and remained silent.
Cassandra knows that Calliope was part of her childhood, but can remember very little about her. So she decides to start by talking to her old friends, even though she didn't consult them when they were included in her bestsellers. The three -- two connected by marriage, one living a separate life -- aren't all that thrilled to see their now-famous former friend. As one tells her, "Maybe we're all just done being supporting players in the Cassandra Fallows show, starring Cassandra Fallows as Cassandra Fallows." (LIFE SENTENCES, p. 130)
Interspersed with Cassandra's current search for Calliope are parts of Calliope's days and excerpts from Cassandra's first book. Calliope's narrative is fascinating, but for what it shows about this character and for what it tells about Lippman's theme of honest memory. Lippman is highly skillful in using the narratives from various points of view to explore the question of how accurate anyone's memories are. Whether it's revising a lover's words or not taking into account her own infidelities -- while blaming her father's adultery for the basic sorrow underlying her life, Cassandra's stories raise multiple questions. How accurate is Cassandra in her first bestseller about her father, a WASP professor, leaving her and her mother for Annie, a down-to-earth African American? Does she know what's really going on in events from her childhood? Does she have the details wrong but get the emotions, the overarching narrative emphasis, right? Did she write things that were true even if not exactly, precisely, real? And why did she write about her own infidelities and alleged happy ending in a second memoir?
Some readers have been highly critical of this novel, as it is not a traditional mystery. But LIFE SENTENCES proves Lippman doesn't have to limit herself. Although Lippman's crime novels are wonderfully written, LIFE SENTENCES is a natural progression in considering not only how a crime, but any event, is viewed and remembered. Lippman is audacious in creating a main character who can be rather irritating, but whose search remains compelling. The overt mystery of Calliope is dealt with in an unusual manner, but one that fits the overall scope of the novel.
If Lippman is so inclined in her further chronicles of Baltimore, whether stand-alones or the Tess Monaghan series, there are plenty of supporting characters who should be seen more. Topmost is Gloria Bustamante, one of Calliope's former lawyers and one tough character with layers only hinted at. Others may not be seen again but will be remembered by discerning readers, such as former cop Teenie, who was forced to retire after a grevious hand injury, and a compromised lawyer who seemed to promising on the surface.
LIFE SENTENCES is a worthy addition to Lippman's growing ouevre of hard-hitting fiction that searches into the dark places of human wants and needs.