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Throughout her career, Laura Lippman's shown an impressive ability to get into the heads of fairly unlikable people. While she doesn't try to convert the reader, she does manage at times to suggest that someone who's pretty nasty could be a sympathetic person. This stuns me, because I can't stop disliking many of these characters, and yet I read every word.
I feel the same way not only about Lippman's Tess Monaghan series but Lippman's current and past standalone novels. I like Tess, like the way she's grown and developed into a pretty good grown-up. But I hate Whitney, and still don't get the friendship between these two unlikely best friends. In TO THE POWER OF THREE and EVERY SECRET THING, Lippman offered characters I often disliked, and here, she's done it again. In every case, I was well, enthralled is the word that comes to mind, a rather uncomfortable word. I don't want to admit to being enthralled by these people. They're snobs, they're rude, they're hideously self-centered and spend so much time on pointless social climbing and ambition and I don't like a one of them. But I read on. How the hell does she do it?
This is one of Lippman's strengths, no question - to offer unsympathetic people and make you, force you, to care and to pay attention. It's not all she does; Lippman has an ability to pick up an event from Baltimore history and suggest a resolution. In WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, she suggested what happened when two girls disappeared years back. LIFE SENTENCES is based on the real story of a woman whose son disappeared, and who spent years in prison never saying a word to explain what if anything her part was in his disappearance.. Lippman creates a story with those bones. And don't you want to know? I sure do.
In LIFE SENTENCES, a native daughter returns to Baltimore after making it big as a writer of memoirs. She decides this time to write a novel, one based on someone she knew slightly back when. To her surprise, her old friends are not thrilled to see her; they don't understand her fascination with days long gone, they don't like the way they were often portrayed in those memoirs, and in fact, they flat out say she was wrong about events. How can she be wrong, Cassandra wonders? She kept a diary, she has notes. But these are apparently open to interpretation, especially when those memories have taken on the aspect of legends. Her memories also do not take into account the brittle issues of race during those years. Her childhood friends are all black and she is white. Looking back has skewed and softened what was a major issue not just in Baltimore but throughout the country. Cassandra's focus, however, is very narrow.
Cassandra, her father and mother and former friends are all pretty dismaying to me. It's almost easy to say that Calliope, the woman who spent those years in prison, is the most sympathetic, but not really. She is very well written, interesting in a sad and poignant way, but not exactly likable. It's just that she's less obnoxious than the others. You can't compare her to her wholly pompous, self-important pretentious father Cedric, the man who calls others "pedantic" where he is the heart and soul of that very adjective. A father who greets his daughter with "and your Middle English is deplorable" has no right to whine about pedantry. But that's the point he never gets. He's one of those parents who never understands, maybe does not want to understand, that children are not small adults. And after years, another acquaintance greets Cassandra with "Are those slacks Armani?" the first words out of her mouth. Tells you a lot, doesn't it?
And here was my dilemma. When the book began to coalesce toward the end, where after all the characters were clearly drawn, and you knew who everyone was, and the denouement was upon me, I was almost dismayed. I wasn't ready to stop reading about these people. I still wanted to know how Lippman did it. How she can, mostly using dialogue (the novelist's best friend) and some interior monologues) bring so many people to life. I didn't want to spend any more time with them - what a bunch - but I was still drawn into this world.
And while it was a bit hard at times to cheer for Cassandra, the putative protagonist here, this was her story, and there were some stunners there too. Who knew that memory could be so iffy, so nebulous, so hard to pin down? Memories are memories. When you have clear pictures of events, there can't be that many interpretations can there? Well, apparently, you can be right and wrong and so can everyone else. And you can miss some of the biggest parts. Some of these early events in the story take place in hugely important times, but the events are a backdrop.
When you're a little kid, your birthday matters more than what's on the news.
It's amazing to me that these characters, who are etched with pretty serious acids, can keep me so interested. I'm not a wimp, I can handle strong personalities in life and action, but it's remarkable to me that I can spend an entire book wincing and thinking "ooh, what a bitch" and then read on, more avidly. Lippman somehow extends a sympathetic hand to these characters, while at the same time, while not exactly dipping a pen in acid, at least in unsweetened lemonade. After you bit down on aluminum foil. How does she do that? It was fascinating to read. And there's enough surprise in the ending still, even with my concerns that I spent too much time on the characters, that I still felt satisfied but still ambiguous.
The almost invisible focus of the story that Cassandra wants to write is Callie (for Calliope) Jenkins. Callie is almost translucent with a hard-to-pin-down personality that shows itself primarily in what it is not. She's so indecisive, so lost, that she cannot make the most basic of decisions. A scene late in the book, where Callie seeks approval from Cassandra because she puts tea in her coffee canister, is simply heartbreaking.
The fact is that LIFE SENTENCES is not an easy read. We all like easy reads and I'm no exception. But this book is beautifully written and well worth reading. Give it the time it deserves.
Reviewed by Andi Shechter, April 2009
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