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. She focuses in on the different paths each of them take. Most of her attention is centered on 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 naïveté about others makes her hard to feel sympathy for or affinity to. It’s hard (as the reader) to not to react as do any 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 the age old question of who has the right to tell which 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.