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Book review: Claire Seeber's 'Lullaby'

(Courtesy Of Thomas Dunne - St. Martin's)
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By Maureen Corrigan
Monday, January 25, 2010

LULLABY

By Claire Seeber

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 458 pp. $26.99

The opening pages of Claire Seeber's first suspense novel, "Lullaby," couldn't be much better. An insecure new mother named Jess Finnegan, her husband and their 8-month-old baby go off on a rare family outing to the Tate Museum in London. They take a break in the museum cafeteria, where Jess beats herself up for eating a bite of chocolate cake, since she still hasn't shed those pesky pregnancy pounds. A snippet of dialogue in which Jess confronts her taciturn husband, Mickey, reveals the power imbalance in their marriage:

" 'You think I'm fat, don't you? I am losing the baby weight, you know.' I pushed the cake crumbs behind the menu card. 'It's coming off now.' I wrinkled my brow at him. 'Do you think I'm fat?' . . .

"I looked at him; I smiled hopefully. He took the bait; he smiled back. 'All right then. You're beautiful.' Then he went and spoilt it. 'It doesn't matter about the weight.' "

At this crucial moment, "Lullaby" could go several ways: It could become a feminist-inflected legal thriller. (Jess yanks a Lucian Freud off a nearby gallery wall and bludgeons Mickey to death for his male insensitivity. After a tense trial, she's exonerated by a jury of lactating mothers.) It could mutate into a crime noir. (As she guzzles Slim-Fast and sheds pounds, Jess begins larding Mickey's meals until he's the one who's pudgy and depressed.) Or it could lope off, as it does, in the promising direction of Daphne du Maurier's grandmother of all marital suspense stories, "Rebecca" (which itself paid homage to that great-grandmother of all premarital suspense stories, "Jane Eyre").

The "Rebecca" template is in place: a mousy younger wife in sexual thrall to an older and richer husband -- a handsome enigma of a man who has secrets squirreled away, not least among them a knockout rival of an ex-wife. What "Lullaby" adds to the "Rebecca" formula is the existence of baby Louis. But Louis serves as a mere plot device to propel Jess into a frantic quest that will accidentally unearth the truth about her marriage. That's because Louis is physically present in the story for a scant few paragraphs before he vanishes -- along with Mickey -- into the rarefied air at the Tate.

Seeber agreeably cranks up the suspense in the following chapters as Jess hunts for Louis and Mickey, all the time convincing herself that Mickey has just stepped outside the museum to use his cellphone, or gone into the men's room to change Louis (fat chance!) or taken the train home because he got bored with culture. Mickey eventually resurfaces in a hospital bed, but he's been so badly beaten that he can't remember anything about the moments before he was attacked and lost consciousness. Baby Louis remains missing.

Various suspects come to the fore, including an oddly unperturbed nymph of an au pair and Jess's ne'er-do-well druggie brother. Every other chapter or so, Jess rouses herself out of her shock, certain she's just spotted the missing Louis in someone else's pram or heard his mother's-milk-deprived cries in another room. A sprinkling of these red herrings adds to the fun of a suspense tale, but eventually they make for a steady diet of canned kippers that produces narrative reflux, since they hardly advance the storyline in any credible way. Jess's hopes might keep rising on the basis of these repetitive false alarms, but to cite Jane Austen's famous phrase from "Northanger Abbey," only the "tell-tale compression of the pages" gives readers any cause for optimism that the mystery of baby Louis's disappearance will, at last, be solved.

It's disappointing that after that atmospheric and nuanced beginning, "Lullaby" turns out to be only a mediocre thriller, because the figure of an exhausted and isolated first-time mother thrust into the position of desperate detective is such a good conceit. The prolific British author Celia Fremlin, who died last summer, may have been the first female suspense writer to hit on this idea. Fremlin fashioned her literary debut out of just such a premise: "The Hours Before Dawn" won the Edgar Award for best novel in 1960, and almost 40 years later it was reprinted as a Virago Modern Classic. As a maternal nightmare, Fremlin's novel still holds up. "Lullaby," in contrast, turns out to be as memorable as a passing bout of colic.

Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course on mystery fiction at Georgetown University.


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