by Laura Lippman
Reviewed by Chuck Leddy
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.
Lippman's main character is author Cassandra Fallows, who has written two best-selling tell-all memoirs about her "difficult" Baltimore childhood and her failed marriages. With her publisher and readers demanding more shocking details of her personal life, the self-dramatizing Cassandra faces a literary roadblock: "The problem was, she had run out of life."
Cassandra sees a news story on CNN about a onetime classmate named Calliope Jenkins, accused of killing her child years before. All Cassandra can remember about this classmate is the ultimate cliché: "She was a quiet girl. Who kept to herself." In fact, Calliope refused to reveal anything to the police about her baby, whose body was never found.
"The next book would be true," an excited Cassandra thinks, "about [herself], but about something larger." Thus, Cassandra temporarily moves back to Baltimore to interview her old classmates and find out what happened to Calliope's baby. What Cassandra discovers is that her old friends, all depicted in her revealing books, aren't so eager to help her construct another bestseller based on their secrets.
Cassandra uses a variety of subterfuges to "bump into" her old friends, catch up on old times, and ask for information about Calliope. The problem is, her old friends, many of them angry at her literary depictions of them, justifiably don't trust her. Cassandra's old classmate Tisha offers a typical response: "I don't want to be a part of it. I just don't. Can't you leave us out of it?"
Digging deeper despite these objections, Cassandra discovers that nearly everyone is hiding something. As she gets closer to uncovering the truth about Calliope, she ironically learns something shocking about herself: Her own carefully crafted, highly publicized life story may be based on pure self-delusion, lies accepted as facts. Lippman's narrative insightfully explores the impossibility of fully knowing anyone's "real" story, one's own or someone else's. As an audience member pointedly asks Cassandra at a bookstore reading, "Why do you get to write the story?"
Cassandra, transformed into a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, uncovers a criminal conspiracy that directly implicates her old Baltimore friends. Andre Howard, a friend's father and a leader of the city's legal community, had gotten Calliope pregnant and paid her off to keep silent. Cassandra obtains documents that trace this hush money, which was sent to Calliope as well as a few of Cassandra's old friends.
Yet when Cassandra reveals the truth to former classmate Donna, Andre's daughter, Donna turns the tables and reveals a dark secret about Cassandra's family, one that could destroy her literary career. Donna makes an offer: "My family's privacy for your family's privacy....It's not always a shameful thing, keeping secrets." Cassandra is faced with a dilemma that the entire novel has been leading up to.
Readers wishing to be transported into an absorbing, murky world of betrayal, self-delusion, and shadowy motivations will find a perfect vehicle in Lippman's difficult-to-forget Life Sentences.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.