three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Life SentencesLaura Lippman, a Baltimore native, often features her hometown in her acclaimed work—including her Tess Monaghan series (Another Thing to Fall, 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2008), as well as her earlier, highly acclaimed stand-alone thriller, What the Dead Know ( 4.5 of 5 Stars Selection July/Aug 2007).

The Story: Middle-aged white writer Cassandra Fallows penned two popular memoirs about growing up in racially divisive Baltimore in the 1960s—particularly her childhood friendship with black girls. With the intent of writing another best seller, Cassandra decides to investigate the real-life mystery of her grade school classmate, Calliope Jenkins, who spent time in prison accused of infanticide and for refusing answer questions about the disappearance of her baby. Cassandra returns to Baltimore to research the story and deal with her parents and friends. She finds, however, that her former classmates—displeased with their portrayals in her previous memoirs—possess very different memories from her own. And as she starts to dig into Calliope’s secrets, she uncovers some of her own.
Morrow. 352 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 0061128899

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"From its gripping opening pages about a burned-out author’s bookstore reading, Laura Lippman’s Life Sentences may be the most absorbing, entertaining mystery published in the last year. … Lippman’s narrative insightfully explores the impossibility of fully knowing anyone’s ‘real’ story, one’s own or someone else’s." Chuck Leddy

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[Lippman’s] greatest sleight of hand is the maneuvering that deftly compromises Cassandra as she reignites old emotions. Not until the end of Life Sentences—a book that takes its title from both Cassandra’s writing and Callie’s fate—will the reader grasp how fully Ms. Lippman has shaped and controlled this narrative." Janet Maslin

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Not a conventional mystery, Life Sentences is a stunning look at the mystery of life and the gulf between people. … Lippman also writes about men, love, relationships and school girl crushes with a mature eye that both respects and understands these feelings without resorting to the clichéd or the romantic." Oline H. Cogdill

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As the story unfolds, the novel’s great strength lies in its characters, particularly Cassandra. … Here, the mystery of Callie’s son is overshadowed by Lippman’s tough-minded portrait of Cassandra and her sometime friends." Patrick Anderson

Dallas Morning News 2 of 5 Stars
"The denouement of the plot-driving Calliope Jenkins story will induce no more than, ‘Oh. OK,’ from most readers. Lippman, normally such a powerful, concise writer, may simply have taken on too much here." Joy Tipping

Critical Summary

As in much of her fiction, Life Sentences was inspired by a real-life story—that of a Baltimore woman who spent seven years in jail for contempt of court for refusing to divulge information about her young son’s disappearance. Most critics agreed that Life Sentences, which almost measures up to the career-defining What the Dead Know, is a compelling exploration of ego, friendships, family relationships, memories, racism, self-deception, and betrayals. Reviewers praised Lippman’s evocation of Baltimore and her strong character development, if the latter at times overwhelms the plot. Only the Dallas Morning News had serious complaints about the lack of suspense and the attempt to address too many topics (class, race, etc.) in one novel. Otherwise, Life Sentences is another gripping offering from an accomplished author.