Thursday, September 29, 2016

Book Review: "The Fall of Lisa Bellow" by Susan Perabo

When a tragedy strikes a friend, or even someone we're merely acquainted with, we wonder how that person or family is handling what happened. "I can't imagine what they're going through," we might think, or, sometimes more commonly, "There before the grace of God go I." Susan Perabo's new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, looks at a tragedy through the eyes of a young girl who witnessed it, as well as her family, and illustrates reactions we might not be proud of, but which seem completely understandable in the wake of what occurred.

Meredith Oliver is an eighth grader with marginal self-esteem. She and her two best friends spend their time loathing the "mean girls" of their class—the pretty, popular girls who are the center of everyone's attention, criticize and belittle their classmates, and make many students hope they can avoid the girls' notice. One of the queens of the group, Lisa Bellow, was Meredith's friend in fourth grade, but obviously a lot has changed since then, and although Meredith and Lisa have lockers next to each other, Meredith lives in somewhat-constant fear that Lisa will embarrass her publicly,, relegating her to the bottom of the social strata of middle school.

One day after school Meredith goes to get a soda at a nearby deli before walking home, and Lisa is there, criticizing the sandwich maker. Without warning, a masked man with a gun enters the shop, orders both girls to get on the floor, and demands access to the store's safe. Meredith is calm at first, and helps Lisa deal with what is happening, but it's not too long before she herself begins to panic. The man demands Lisa stand up and he takes her from the store, leaving Meredith behind on the floor.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow looks at how Meredith handles the mixed blessing of being safe and being the one left behind. She vacillates between catatonia and rebellion, throwing her already worried parents further into a tailspin. She even imagines speaking with Lisa, and imagines what is happening to her, even picturing what it might be like if the two of them were abducted together.

Behind the fragility of Meredith's condition, the book also looks at how Claire, Meredith's mother, is handling this close call her daughter experienced. What happens when you realize you can't protect your children from everything out in the world? How can you keep living life as usual when you know there's a chance something might affect your children, something you can't control no matter how hard you try? How do you help your children if they won't tell you what they need, what they're feeling, what they're afraid of? And how do you handle everything else around you—your marriage, your job, your other relationships—when all that matters is what happened?

This is a tremendously thought-provoking book, and as she did in her incredible story collection, Why They Run the Way They Do (which made my list of the best books I read in 2015), Perabo pulls you into the story almost immediately. There is tension, there is emotion, there is even a little bit of disgust (perhaps even a bit more than you think), but there are also glimmers of hope.

Where I struggled with this book is that while I understood what might make the characters act the way they did, and certainly sympathized with them, I really didn't like Claire or Meredith's characters very much. Claire's behavior at different times in the book was almost horrifying, and while I realize Meredith was dealing with significant post-traumatic stress, her actions and reactions made her difficult to root for. But as I thought about how this book and these characters made me feel, I realized my reactions might be more true-to-life for observers of a family dealing with such a crisis, and I realized again what a genius storyteller Perabo is.

I didn't love this as much as her story collection, but this is still a very well-written book. If you're unfamiliar with Perabo's work, you owe it to yourself to pick up one of her books. You'll marvel at her words, but also the choices she makes in telling her characters' stories.

NetGalley and Simon & Schuster provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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