If you pay attention to the book publishing industry at all (or if you watch “Oprah”), it’s pretty much impossible to ignore the recent rash of highly publicized, heart-tugging memoirs that turn out to be embellished, altered, or completely fabricated versions of reality. In LIFE SENTENCES, Laura Lippman’s first stand-alone mystery after 2007’s exquisite WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, one of the questions the author explores is: what if a memoirist records a skewed version of the past, but through no fault of her own?
LIFE SENTENCES, like Lippman’s other novels (including her well-regarded series starring Tess Monaghan), is set in Baltimore. Also like WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, Lippman’s latest is inspired by a real-life crime story, this time one in which a woman whose son disappeared while under the (questionable) oversight of the Department of Social Services refused to testify in court and spent seven years in prison as a result.
In LIFE SENTENCES, the woman in question is Calliope Jenkins, who has virtually disappeared from sight since serving that prison time. When Calliope’s name is mentioned on the national news in comparison with another case of a mother refusing to testify, it catches the attention of Cassandra Fallows. Cassandra, who now lives in New York City, is the author of two well-regarded memoirs and a less well-reviewed novel. She’s also one of Calliope’s former classmates, the only white girl in a close-knit group of friends that unraveled after middle school. What, Cassandra wonders, caused Callie’s life to go so awry, when her life --- and the lives of the other African-American girls in their clique --- turned out so much better?
It seems that Callie’s story --- interwoven with the stories of Cassandra’s childhood friendships --- just might be the genesis for Cassandra’s next memoir. But when she returns to Baltimore to interview those childhood friends, as well as the lawyers and police officers involved in Callie’s case, she discovers that not only do they not share many of Cassandra’s memories, they also resent her portrayals of them in her earlier memoirs and resist cooperating with her next tell-all. Finding these holes in her own story forces Cassandra to reexamine everything --- including her family saga --- that was the basis of her groundbreaking first memoir. What about her own life is true? And what is the truth about Calliope Jenkins?
What’s striking about LIFE SENTENCES is that, in the final analysis, Cassandra’s investigation of Callie’s story --- and the truths she uncovers --- are ultimately less compelling than the dual stories of her attempts to reconnect with a past she thought she understood and her dawning recognition that her impulse to tell the truth in her writing is ultimately based on a whole series of faulty memories and outright lies.
Although Lippman’s latest stand-alone comes up short both as a straightforward mystery novel and in comparison with the storytelling strength of WHAT THE DEAD KNOW, it nevertheless will resonate with anyone who has really tried to understand his or her personal origins or with those who have tried to reconnect with old friends who carry deep chips on their shoulders.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on March 2, 2010