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March 16, 2009

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman is a remarkable writer, and I come bearing proof: she is a female writer of popular fiction who garners New York Times reviews. She is an established crime writer successfully expanding her literary horizons (when lately we’ve often seen it the other way around). In her latest novel Life Sentences, her main character is a fifty year-old silver-haired woman with a (beside the point) voracious and oft-satisfied sexual appetite, and how often do we encounter such women in popular culture at all?

I first encountered Lippman with her 2007 novel What the Dead Know, a stand-alone book (Lippman is known for her Tess Monaghan PI novels) that was critically acclaimed and won the 2007 Quill Award, and I read her short story collection Hardly Knew Her not long ago. I’ve been impressed by her ability to cultivate suspense, to challenge her readers with unsympathetic characters, to effectively use language and literary references, and by her blunt and unflinching prose.

I wasn’t as immediately drawn into Life Sentences, however, perhaps due to the fragmented nature of the narrative. Eventually, however, this method made sense. The centre of this story is Cassandra Fallows, best-selling author of two memoirs, and poorly-selling author of a new attempt at fiction. The story begins with her catching a news story on television about a woman who refuses to disclose the whereabouts of her missing child. The reporter referencing a similar story from twenty years before, about a woman called Calliope Jenkins in Baltimore. Cassandra, a Baltimore native, realizing that Calliope Jenkins had been one of her school mates, and deciding that within this coincidence, the buds of a new book might lurk.

Lippman constructs her own story with Cassandra’s pursuit of this bud (in third-person), excerpts from her memoir Her Father’s Daughter (about growing up in the shadow of her formidable academic father, who abandoned their family for a woman he met in the race riots following the 1968 murder of Martin Luther King), and third person accounts by others involved in the Calliope Jenkins case– her lawyer, the detective, old school friends of both Cassandra and Callope–none of whom have any interest in talking to Cassandra at all.

There are two reasons for their reticence, and for the school friends in particular, it’s because they don’t trust Cassandra. They’d been portrayed in her previous memoirs, in ways they claim are grossly inaccurate, and resent Cassandra’s tendency to make herself the centre of every story she tells. They don’t remember their unit being as tight as Cassandra does, picturing her more on the periphery of their experience. Particularly galling, they find, is how Cassandra had taken the story of King’s death and ensuing riots, making these events the backdrop for her tenth birthday party.

But some of these friends also have something to hide, as do the officials involved in the Calliope Jenkins case, who have never recovered from the experience of dealing with this woman who refused to talk. From the knowledge also that somewhere out there is a dead child, and that nobody was ever able to find him. Like much of Lippman’s crime fiction (and interestingly enough in relation to Cassandra’s own relationship with fact and fiction), Calliope Jenkins’ story is based on an actual case. Lippman has Callie living now an anonymous life in Delaware, having been freed after seven years in prison. Cassandra Fallows is determined to find her, and though sources try to thwart her at every turn, such thwartings are telling of the characters committing them, and Cassandra only presses on.

Lippman accomplishes not such a sleight of hand in crafting this story, the revelation being less-than startling, but the story’s own substance in the point instead. Metafictional dealings with fact and fiction, the nature of memoir and memory, a main character whose reliability is undermined from the very start (and complicated by the fact that she’s oblivious to this). Cassandra Fallows who talks too much, and Calliope Jenkins who doesn’t talk at all, and yet somehow between them the story must be told, which Lippman manages deftly.

One thought on “Life Sentences by Laura Lippman”

  1. Jennica says:

    I loved ‘What the Dead Know’ — despite having to carry around one of those $6.99 paperbacks to read it! Thanks for the heads-up about this new one…

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