"God pity them both! and pity us all, / Who vainly the dreams of youth recall." This is the epigraph by John Greenleaf Whittier at the beginning of Laura Lippman's latest stand-alone novel. "The dreams of youth" imbue THE MOST DANGEROUS THING, as does the notion of recalling, of memory itself. How do the traumatic events of childhood shape the rest of our lives? What truths do we obscure? What lies do we tell, even to ourselves? These are the questions that arise again and again in this haunting, many-layered novel.
"Freely moving back and forth between past and present, and between generations, Lippman's skillful narrative similarly reveals the truth one bit at a time..."
During the fall of 1977, something unforgettable --- and perhaps unforgivable --- happened to a close-knit group of neighborhood children in a Baltimore suburb. These kids, from three different families and very different circumstances, sat on that vulnerable cusp between childhood and adolescence, when relationships change rapidly and friendships that used to seem innocent now appear anything but.
Those children are grown now, all but one --- Gordon (known as Go Go) --- who died in a horrific single-vehicle accident on the dead-end highway out of town. Go Go has struggled with alcohol use most of his adult life, and he's always been troubled, if not a little crazy. So no one knows whether it was a drunken accident or a deliberate self-inflicted death by automobile that killed him. Go Go's childhood friend Gwen, in town to care for her elderly father, is particularly troubled by Go Go's death, which brings back all sorts of other unanswered questions from that autumn more than 30 years earlier.
Gwen, who is using her father's illness as an excuse to flee her own failing marriage, has largely lost touch with the Halloran brothers, who were her closest companions back then. In fact, handsome Sean was her first serious boyfriend. She's even less connected to fascinating, slightly mysterious bad girl Mickey, who has since reinvented herself as a beautiful flight attendant named McKey. But when they all come back to their small town for Go Go's funeral, it's hard not to recall those horrific events of their youth.
The only problem is that no one has the full story --- not the kids (now adults) and not their parents, who experienced their own fallout in the wake of the tragedy that defined their children's youth. Freely moving back and forth between past and present, and between generations, Lippman's skillful narrative similarly reveals the truth one bit at a time, ensuring that readers, like Gwen, won't want to stop until they find out the truth of what happened those many years ago. Memories may be fallible, and truths may be hidden, but the power of a compelling story shines through. In the novel, "the most dangerous thing" is truth that is neither seen nor understood. Her storytelling reviews that truth --- and far more besides.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 23, 2011