Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Life Sentences by Laura Lippman

We all have our readerly prejudices--singular authors or whole genres that we steer clear of. We've either read that sort of thing in an earlier stage of our lives and have now put it behind us or have been warned off venturing in that direction altogether by someone whose opinion we trust or would like to live up to. When we do read outside our self-imposed boundaries and find something out there that works for us, that makes us rethink why we'd ever thought x about y, or causes us, as often is the case, to double down on our prejudices by enthusing that this particular book/author transcends its genre, we're apt to offend those who've never had our biases to begin with and now feel compelled to put us in our place by telling us that what we admire is what we'd most abhor if we only knew the first thing about what it was we were talking about.*

Anyway. . .

Whenever my friends C. and A. launch into a discussion of the mystery/crime authors they've been reading I have a tendency to zone in and out. I've told myself for years that I don't read mysteries--not enough attention typically spent on character development to make them worth my while. Nevertheless, I love Kate Atkinson's characters and those of Tana French and have found myself as of late not at all opposed to the idea of mysteries with a more literary focus. Offered a chance to participate in the TLC Tour for Laura Lippman's latest, Life Sentences, I was happy to sign on. I've seen Lippman's name crop up--always favorably--at Readerville (R.I.P.) and Book Balloon enough over the last couple of years to have had her at the back of my mind as someone I'd like to try.

Now, your opinion of Life Sentences may depend on which side of the divide you started on. If you read a lot of mysteries, this may mess with your expectations and leave you unfulfilled--even I, who, in general, forget endings quickly and could care less who actually done it, felt the solution to the central mystery in this one a little unworthy of the build-up. But if you're willing to accept that the heart of the novel lies outside the conventional mystery itself, and you don't have a readerly prejudice against a main character who's often downright unlikeable, then you'll probably enjoy Life Sentences as much as I did.

Cassandra Fallows makes a name for herself writing memoirs--one that highlighted her father's promiscuities, the other, her own--before she publishes her first work of literary fiction. When the novel fails to garner favorable reviews or sell to the same degree as the memoirs, she's convinced that she ought to return to nonfiction--despite the fact that she's "run out of life" of her own to exploit.

There's always that of former elementary school classmate Calliope Jenkins, though, who served seven years in prison for contempt following the disappearance of her infant son and her refusal to say what happened to him. Cassandra is convinced she can solve the mystery surrounding Calliope, especially if her childhood friends back in Baltimore lend their support, and regain her bestseller status in the process.

The trouble is these friends are most uncooperative when it comes to exposing Calliope for the sake of yet another Cassandra-centered work--they think Cassandra should stick to fiction. In fact, they think Cassandra's memoirs were filled with fictions in the first place: if she "couldn't get the small things right, why should she be trusted on the big things?" Tisha, in particular, still resents how Cassandra co-opted Martin Luther King's assassination and turned it into "the story of her own personal tragedy. She hadn't known, couldn't know what had gone on in the living rooms and kitchens of black folks' homes that horrible weekend, the fear and grief and terror of it all."

Attempting to get to the bottom of Calliope's story and reacquainting herself with childhood friends and classmates will lead Cassandra to reassess her memories and face previously unrecognized truths about her family and herself.

Because Cassandra's a writer, there's lots of references to books she's read--I'll have a Reading Habits of Fictional Characters post based on Life Sentences up in a day or two.

You can read more reviews on Life Sentences by following the links at TLC Book Tours.

*a literary agent of Cassandra Fallows' acquaintance would call this first paragraph throat-clearing, microphone-tapping. He would want me to take it out.



  1. Loved your intro. :)

    I'm about 50/50 on unlikable characters. However, I think unlikable characters make fantastic discussions for book clubs. I recently had a book club meeting about a book with unlikable characters, and it was interesting to see who sympathized with whom, which characters we thought were redeemable, etc. The discussion was great!

    Anyway, thanks for being on this tour! You always write great reviews. :)

  2. I've heard good things about Lippman's books so I would be willing to give it a try. I think if you go in with the proper expectations (as you say) you can enjoy the book!

  3. I enjoy LL.

    Hey, off-topic, did this entry appear in your reader? It's right up your reading alley:

    Best regards.


  4. I love mysteries and memoirs but I have to say that Authors are a more important when choosing a read and I'm a big fan of Laura Lippman, I didnt know she released this book. Thanks for the update!

  5. I am ALL about literary thrillers/mysteries, so I love Lippman, French and Atkinson!

  6. Well, you know I love mysteries so I'll have to put this one on my radar. I know what you mean about mysteries that are a bit more about the characters rather than the whodunit. I absolutely love Tana French's books and am eagerly awaiting the next one.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

Sherman Alexie cancels book tour for memoir about his mother.