Dennis Lehane’s 14th novel takes the author back to his old New England stomping grounds, that fertile place of “Mystic River” and “Shutter Island.” This tale, “Since We Fell,” basing its title on an old torch ballad, is a pleasantly twisted character study and a love story told in no particular rush. It turns, down to the last page, on the captivating heart of a disgraced television journalist named Rachel Childs.
It’s about identity, too — how you picture yourself internally and how that contrasts with the outer personality you use to face the rest of the world.
Rachel, in her late 30s in this modern-day setting, never lets on whether she has read T.S. Eliot (“There will be time, there will be time/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet”), or listened to the just-before-her-day “Eleanor Rigby,” (the famed Beatles spinster, who “waits at the window, wearing the face/That she keeps in a jar by the door”) but you know her creator has.
Rachel is born in a lily-white, highly academic Zip code in western Massachusetts, the daughter of Elizabeth, an overbearing mother, and James, a soon-to-be vanished father. Mommie Dearest writes a best-selling treatise on the phases of romantic relationships, “The Staircase,” although she has only bitter experience in the field. Rachel’s father takes off when Rachel is a tot. The moment of abandonment haunts her:
“There was the bump of a heavy suitcase on the stairs out back followed by the snap of a trunk closing. The rasp and whittle of a cold engine clamoring to life in a small car, then tires crunching winter leaves and frozen dirt, followed by . . . silence.”
In that quiet, Mom works her manipulative magic. Never talk of your dad, she tells her heartbroken daughter. Erase him from your life. Half-wasted, she tells her 10-year-old only child: “A man is the stories he tells about himself, and most of those stories are lies. Never look too closely.” Elizabeth is killed years later when she blows a red light and is T-boned by an oncoming car.
The savvy reader will put this advice to Elizabeth’s prepubescent daughter in glowing neon, for the rest of the book is largely composed of Rachel negotiating the traps set by a succession of men: a warlord in a Haitian refugee camp; an emotionally distant first husband; and then, for all the stakes, her second hubby, Brian.
She shoots him in the first scene of the book. The rest of the narrative unfolds before and after that transitional moment.
The reader should not be in a hurry. The first quarter of the book follows the youthful Rachel, her journalism and television career, and the search for her dad. She’s a good reporter at the Boston Globe, transitions to television, marries a handsome producer, and is on her way to the national networks when she is sent to cover an earthquake in Haiti. The violence, poverty and misery she encounters disrupt her celluloid-thin emotional shell, however, and she melts down on-air.
That clip goes viral and her career is finished. She becomes a shut-in, physically and mentally. Her marriage disintegrates . . . and she runs into Brian, a former private investigator who helped her look for her dad, on a rare excursion in public. Brian, now in the international timber business, swoops in to save the day. They fall for each other, in the phrase of the betrothed, for better or worse. Mostly, worse.
The ballad that lends the book its title — “Since I Fell for You” — is a narrative key. It’s not a song of love and devotion, but “a loss song, the lament of someone trapped in a hopeless addiction to a heartless lover who will, there is no doubt, ultimately destroy him. Or her, depending on which version you listened to.”
Lehane, is, as ever, a graceful writer, observant of the world that shapes his characters’ lives. The desperation that overtakes Rachel in the latter stages of the novel is part of the national baring of the teeth. The middle-class dream of American prosperity increasingly becomes a gauzy, false memory of days gone by: “It had happened before she was born, this wholesale discarding of American industry, this switch from a culture that made things of value to a culture that consumed things of dubious merit.”
There’s nothing dubious about the merits here. Lehane is in command of what he’s doing — unspooling plot twists and developing his character as Rachel descends into her own heart of darkness.
Neely Tucker’s most recent book is “Only the Hunted Run.”
At 6 p.m. on May 20, Dennis Lehane will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.
By Dennis Lehane
Ecco. 418 pp. $27.99