Friday, December 11, 2009

a review of "Life Sentences"

Life Sentences- A Novel by Laura Lippman
(William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-112889-9)

Cassandra Fallows is in the midst a crisis in her writing career. Having written two very successful memoirs, she is not prepared for the less than overwhelming acclaim that is greeting her third book, a work of fiction. And the future is looking even more bleak. Maybe the novel was not her best work.."Or perhaps the problem was more basic. She wasn't a novelist. She was equipped not to make things up but to bring back things that were. She was a sorceress of the past, an oracle who looked backward to what had been. She was, as her father had decreed, Cassandra incapable of speaking anything but the truth." Well, the truth as she remembers it anyway. It seems not everyone saw what happened, or themselves, as Cassandra did.

Her first book was about her childhood, growing up a white middle class girl in a racially diverse Baltimore in the '60s and about the three black girls who had been her best friends in school. There was Donna, from a politically successful family, the rather wild Fatima and the 'leader' of the group, the clever Tisha. But most of all that first book was about her family and the pivotal event of her father leaving her and her mother for another woman, an event forever tied in her mind to the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Her second book was about her rather promiscuous life, her two failed marriages and her less than successful relationships with the many men in her past. But now having told all she has to tell, and not sure her editors want to see another novel delivered to fulfill her book contract, she is very excited when a story on the TV news gives her a new idea. Talking about a woman in New Orleans who is suspected in the disappearance of her child, the newscaster brings up a local Baltimore case from years ago. The infant son of a woman named Calliope Jenkins had disappeared and while police suspected she had killed the boy, she simply refused to discuss it at all. She served seven years in prison for contempt, but never spoke about what happen to the baby. Not living in Baltimore when it happened, Cassandra was not familiar with the case, but then realizes that she had gone to school with the suspected murderer, that Calliope had been the quiet fifth girl on the edge of her schoolhouse group. So she decides that she will find Calliope and her other old friends, solve the mystery of what really happen and write another hugely successful book.

Except that not everyone is quite as happy as Cassandra about having her "bring back things that were."

Lippman is best known for her mystery series starring Baltimore private detective Tess Monagham, but this is a stand alone book, and not really a mystery. Yes, there is that central question of what happened to Calliope's baby and much of the book involves Cassandra seeking out all the people from her past that can help her find Calliope and discover the truth, but quite honestly, I found that part pretty easy to figure out. No, the real story here revolves about some other issues. It's about race and how the different people involved experienced the racial charged years in the 60's and 70's that formed this story. It's about memory, how subjective and flawed it can be, how what we think was true might actually be something very different. It's about friendship and family and what makes us the person we are.
And yes, there is that question of Calliope's baby and why she would rather go to prison for seven years than revel the truth.

I rather liked this book. Maybe I didn't love it and it was not what I expected having read a number of Lippman's other books. In fact, I felt at times like the people who showed up at Cassandra book signing for her novel, a bit disappointed she had gone on a different tangent from her previous books. Hey, what can I say...I like mysteries. But that being said, I found this an interesting, well written book. This book is all about the characters and Lippman does a wonderful job of painting them. It is not always a pretty picture she paints and it is hard to find anyone, perhaps with one or two exceptions, that is very admirable, but they are all interesting.
I also found the sort of behind the scene view of the life of an author interesting. Her trips to NYC to meet with her agent and editor, her worries about how she will pay back her big advance if this book falls through, how she feels when the much smaller than expected crowd shows up for a book signing of her novel. Even success is not without it's price.

If you are a fan of Lippman's Tess Monagham series, I would recommend Life Sentences but just be ready for something different.


  1. I haven't read any of her other books but I did read this one. Hmmm . . .I kept waiting for something to happen. It was an ok read but nothing special.

    I still might try one of her "real" mysteries.

  2. I like this book, but not as much as the Tess Monagham series. There is that sense of waiting for the Big Thing to happen...and it does not.

  3. Sometimes our expectations can affect our enjoyment of a book. I'll keep your review in mind when I read this book.

  4. Lippman is a new author to me completely but I like the sound of this book as well as her mystery series which I will be looking into. I think this book sounds interesting. I find the idea of an author with two memoirs behind her trying to make a go of it with fiction an interesting conundrum and probablky not all that unusual.

  5. Being a native Bal-moron, I've followed Lippmann from the beginning of her career, but must confess, I haven' stayed with her. Must go check this out. I'm always a bit fearful when authors 'step out of the box' but then I'm also the first to criticize if I think they're getting into too much of a rut. Thanks for pointing this one out.

  6. I like the Baltimore flavor to her books.

    You make an excellent point Tina. We complain if they keep writing the same thing...we complain if they try something

    Part of what I enjoy about this book was the behind the scene look at an author and her attitude toward her writing and her editors and all...

  7. I just got a book by this author to try (it must be a Tess one). This sounds like a good read. Great review -- as always.


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