Life Sentences – Book Review

Cassandra understood the media cycle well enough to know that Callie would disappear within a day or two, that she was a place-maker in the current story, the kind of footnote dredged up in the absence of new developments. Callie had been forgotten and would be forgotten again. Her child had been forgotten, left in this permanent limbo – not officially dead, not even officially missing, just unaccounted for, like an item on a manifest. A baby, an African-American boy, had vanished, with no explanation and yet no real urgency. His mother, almost certainly the person responsible, had defeated the authorities with silence. – from Life Sentences, page 12 –

Cassandra Fallows is casting around for her next book idea after having published two highly successful memoirs and one floundering novel, when an evening newscast brings up a name from her past. Calliope Jenkins had shared an elementary school classroom with Cassandra. She was later held for seven years in prison for refusing to reveal the whereabouts of her infant son…who is still missing and presumed dead. Now released from prison, Calliope provides the perfect backdrop for another memoir of sorts for Cassandra. Cassandra returns to her childhood home in Baltimore to try to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Calliope and her son, and ends up reconnecting with her old friends. What she discovers are buried secrets about her own life, and another perspective on what constitutes truth.

Laura Lippman takes her time in developing her characters in Life Sentences, switching back and forth from the past to the present, and giving the reader multiple perspectives of Cassandra’s life. Cassandra is not wholly likable (she has a tendency to go to bed with other women’s husbands and seems oblivious to how her literary portrayal of the people in her life might impact them) yet I found myself wanting to give her a chance at redemption. Part of the conflict in the novel is internal – that which lies within Cassandra herself. Although her goal was to write a book and not rethink her life, Cassandra ultimately is forced to deal with her own weaknesses, learn another way of seeing the world, and revisit her version of the truth.

Lippman apparently used to write straight forward mysteries and suspense novels, but in Life Sentences the mystery takes second stage to the deeper issues raised in the book. Using the historical backdrop of the civil rights movement in Baltimore and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Lippman explores the difficult subject of race relations. Cassandra’s unfaithful father leaves her mother to marry a black woman. Cassandra’s childhood friends are all black (she is white) and the division between them (and their later anger around Cassandra’s memoir) centers largely around unspoken race issues. One huge event in Cassandra’s life (when she is attacked by a group of white girls in her school) takes on a different meaning when seen outside of Cassandra’s narrow view and is explained from the viewpoint of a black friend who witnessed the attack but did nothing to stop it.

Another huge theme in the book is that of memory and perspective – how two people can experience the same thing and yet remember it differently. As Cassandra tries to mine her past for her next book, she discovers her memories about important events vary significantly from that of her friends.

Ultimately Lippman gets to the mystery and provides an answer for her readers, but she arrives there after a meandering journey through the lives of her central characters. And that is perhaps my only complaint with the novel – it moves a bit slowly at times. This is not a book a reader will plow through in one sitting. Despite this minor complaint, I can recommend Life Sentences to those readers who enjoy their mysteries character-driven vs. plot driven.

Please visit my TLC Book Tour post which includes a guest post by the author.

FTC Disclosure: This book was provided to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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  1. I totally agree with your review. I found this novel to be interesting, but it wasn’t much of a mystery for me. I classified it as introspective fiction, I believe. I’m still eager to read one of her other novels, as it seems this one isn’t indicative of her usual work.

    • Kathy on March 3, 2010 at 17:01

    I read this book last year, probably in the summer. I put it in my library thing. I do not remember a single thing about it. I read your review and then read some others and still, my mind is blank. I only rated it 3.5 stars, so I am guessing I had about the same experience that you did. Other books that I read earlier, such as The Help, I can remember clearly. I really wish it was memorable because the description still sounds interesting.

  2. I have an earlier book by this author (What the Dead Know) to try … but this sounds pretty good too.

    • trish on March 4, 2010 at 12:11

    I like the way Lippman is going with her novels. I like the bit of mystery, but I like that there’s quite a bit of character study on the way to solving the mystery.

    As always, you’ve provided great insights into this book. Thanks for being on this tour, Wendy!

    • Wendy on March 6, 2010 at 09:08

    Nomad Reader: *nods* I think Lippman is moving more into the literary genre with her latest work…which I like; but sometimes I want just a plain mystery book 🙂

    Kathy: It’s funny how sometimes we just can’t remember a book and how other books just stick with us through the years.

    Jenners: I liked What the Dead Know A LOT. Hope you’ll enjoy that one.

    Trish: *nods* For those who love character-driven novels (or literary novels), Lippman’s change in style is really going to resonate. My pleasure to tour this one 🙂

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