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Book Review: 'Life Sentences,' by Laura Lippman

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By Patrick Anderson,
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, March 9, 2009

LIFE SENTENCES

By Laura Lippman

Morrow. 344 pp. $24.99

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 shopping mall in 1975 -- and proceeded to 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.

Anderson's e-mail is mondaythrillers@aol.com.


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