Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman – Book Review

I first heard about Laura Lippman when Trish from Hey Lady read What The Dead Know, and loved it so much that she started the Laura Lippman Reading Challenge.  Since then I have read countless reviews on book blogs full of veritable plaudits on Lippman’s work.  I love a good mystery and I am always excited to find a good literary mystery – and an excuse to go browsing in the book store.  As I read through blurbs and considered all the choices, I became convinced that I wanted to start a series from the beginning.  I looked at the order of the books in the front covers and came away with Life Sentences.

As it turns out, Life Sentences, is not a part of a series, but a stand alone work whose main protagonist, Cassandra Fallows, is a failed fiction writer looking to jump start her career by writing a memoir/retrospective of her childhood friends, and the different paths each of them take, especially with respect to Calliope Jenkins, a grade school acquaintance once under suspicion but never convicted of murdering her missing child.

In Life Sentences, Lippman has written a compelling and absorbing mystery with complex characters whose interactions are equally so.  Cassandra’s tension filled relationship with her divorced parents stems in part from the two memoirs that she has written which heavily feature the faults of  her parents marriage, her childhood, and the deleterious effects her father’s infidelity has had on her own marriage and relationships.  Though her memoirs have made her famous, Cassandra might not be the most reliable narrator of past events. As she researches her book, the narrative alternates between chapters of her first memoir, her present day perspective and the points of view of childhood friends who view Cassandra, and the past, from a decidedly different perspective.

Though I ended up really liking this book, it was a bit shaky for me in the beginning.  For a writer, Cassandra isn’t the most perceptive or sensitive person for the job.  Her narrow perspective in her books and life, and almost willful naivete about others makes her hard to feel sympathy for or affinity to.  It’s hard, as the reader, not to react as one of the people whom Cassandra mishandles in her memoir.  Also, the majority of characters are black, something mostly learned after the fact – like a surprise, which unfortunately makes learning their racial identity seem a little sensational.  I think Lippman was trying to underscore the rarity of such relationships in 1960’s and maybe even present day Baltimore, but to me it seemed forced.

Lippman’s characters have dense lives and much is touched upon besides the burning question of what happened to the missing child.  Lippman incorporates past and present day Baltimore race relations,interracial relationships and friendships, infidelity, the father/daughter bond, the trickiness of memory and who the ages old question of has that right to tell stories.  Lippman deftly handles all subjects so no one issue is one sided, but instead thought provoking at every turn.  She is also a gifted chronicler of Baltimore city and county, rich characters in their own right that I especially appreciated after my recent visit. Quibbles aside, Life Sentences is ultimately a smart and satisfying read and I can’t wait to delve into the rest of her stories.

Read More Reviews At: Word LilyCaribousmom

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  1. Last month, I was thinking about this author’s books, because there were many steal deals at a used book store I frequent.
    I know am sure I should definitely give her a try, just the problem of which one to buy!

  2. Oh my goodness, I am such a cover whore. Despite the fact that your description of the book makes me feel like I wouldn’t quite like (I don’t really enjoy mysteries) I’m still tempted to go read it because of that fabulous cover. I have a problem.

  3. Ah, I have this one on my shelves! I have yet to read any of her work, and I really look forward to it. 2011 is going to be the year of reading what I have (and reading what I want)!

  4. I wasn’t really a fan of this one because I wasn’t riveted by the mystery (and actually don’t consider the novel a mystery.) I seem to be in the minority about Lippman because I had a similar reaction to her most recent stand-alone novel too.

  5. I’ve been hearing a lot about Lippman’s work too and still haven’t gotten around to reading anything. I’m glad you ultimately found the book satisfying and wanting more.

  6. I just finished reading all of Lippman’s standalone novels (I’ve read the Tess series for several years), and I liked all of them. Life Sentences I read long ago, but I just checked it out from the library because I remember very little of it. I recommend I’d Know You Anywhere and Every Secret Thing. I liked them all, but these were the best in my opinion.

    1. I knew so little about what was what with her books. If I had known that I’s Know You Anywhere was a stand alone I probably would have started there. I am looking forward to reading more of her books.