In Laura Lippman’s latest, a self-absorbed memoirist-turned-novelist once again delves into her past, searching for material. thinking she has exhausted her own life, Cassandra Fallows decides to focus on a so-called friend from her childhood, a virtual cipher named Caliope (Callie) Jenkins, who had been convicted of killing her second child years after they lost contact. The hook was that Caliope had pled the fifth, refusing to speak, even in her own defense.
Though the first chapter struck me as slow, mostly just Cassandra’s self-pitying thoughts about her less than stellar reception as a novelist, the premise and the mystery sounded promising. The rest of the novel is the story of Cassandra’s attempts to uncover the truth about what had really happened, not only to Callie’s son, but to the woman herself in the intervening years. Unfortunately, all that is uncovered is Cassandra’s all-consuming narcicism and capacity for self-delusion. Her futile probing of childhood friends only reveals that no one seems to share the childhood memories she had published for the world’s consumption. In fact, most of them don’t even want to see her again, let alone talk about Callie or their pasts together. We also meet a damaged former cop, and I got the feeling we were supposed to believe she was obsessed with the unsolved case, but frankly, I didn’t. The parody of a well-known, publicity seeking female attorney did nothing to help this tale limp along.
Ultimately, I was bored, and after a couple weeks puzzling, I think I’ve pinpointed why – there is not one single likable character in the entire novel. The ones who aren’t deeply, even offensively flawed, are so harh that you can’t bring yourself to care about them. And Lippman’s portrayal of Callie Jenkins as a mysterious cipher is so complete that I couldn’t even maintain a curiosity about what she had gone through or why she had remained silent. There was just nothing compelling about her.
What I did enjoy about Life Sentences was the undercurrent of personal remembrance and revelation. How much of our “personal” history is really ours? Don’t we share it with the people who lived alongside us? While using our experiences to inspire fiction is common to the point of expectation, straight memoir is a completely different proposition. What is the truth? Facts and figures, verifiable information? Or is it what we recall? The sum total of what everyone recalls? As writers, what are our responsibilities to the people we write about? What are the responsibilities to our readers?
Life Sentences fell short as a mystery for me, but it has its merits as a musing on how we remember what whe have lived through, and how we should handle those memories and the people involved.