Susan Perabo has written a difficult novel–and I’m still unsure how I feel about it. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of two middle schoolers’ encounter with an armed robber, but it’s also a novel about a marriage, dentistry, and cliques. The novel packs a punch but manages to also feel unsatisfying; Perabo uncovers remarkable truths of the human spirit while also leaving them utterly unresolved. My reaction to each page ranged wildly from speechless awe to eye rolls: really? I am sure of one thing, though: I can’t get this book out of my head.
Bear all that in mind when you read my full review, below.
The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
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- publisher: Simon & Schuster
- publication date: March 14, 2017
- isbn: 978-1-4767-6146-6
- length: 352 pages
Mass shootings and kidnappings of beautiful white girls both loom large in the American imagination; Perabo relies on this inherent tension in The Fall of Lisa Bellow, though her masked gunman never actually fires a shot. Rather, as two middle school rivals lie terrified and facedown on the floor of a Deli Barn (a stand-in for Subway, as best I can tell), the reader realizes that this story isn’t about the gunman at all. It’s about the tension between the girl he chooses to take with him and the one he leaves behind.
The one he takes is Lisa Bellow, a middle school queen bee both loved and loathed by the student body. The one he leaves is Meredith Oliver, an awkward, quiet girl who is neither popular nor unpopular, but aspires to more. When Lisa is taken, Meredith becomes the new ringleader of Lisa’s clique, and unbeknownst to everyone else, Meredith also develops a strange psychic connection to Lisa, able to “see” and even participate in her new life with her kidnapper (and rapist).
Despite the novel’s riveting premise, the plot crawls along with agonizing slowness, invested in spooling and unspooling the dozens of ways the tragedy could have been altered or prevented–basically, if you’re expecting a literary thriller in the mode of Gillian Flynn, you won’t get it. While Perabo’s language is gorgeous and her eye for tension keen, the novel seems to actively deny readers any sort of catharsis, and it left me exhausted, confused, and surprisingly cold.
PSA: The next part of this review could be considered a spoiler, so if you care about that, you can stop reading here–I hope I’ve already made my complicated feelings clear. But they’ll be clearer if you read on.
The reader is eventually left with the conclusion that Meredith’s “connection” to Lisa might be–in fact, probably is–a one-sided way to understand a traumatic event, and not a psychic connection at all. It’s a revelation that’s both brilliant and cheap, believable and anticlimactic. Of course a bright and imaginative middle-schooler would forge that kind of bond with a girl she still feels guilty about hating. Of course.
It makes for terrible reading regardless, and left me asking: How else was I lied to? It’s the confusion of an unreliable narrator with none of the interest or excitement that the device usually supplies.
Compounding my feeling that Perabo doesn’t know quite what she wants to achieve with this novel is the array of side characters and subplots that range from only mildly compelling to outright annoying.
Meredith’s mother, Claire, is also a central character; the novel is told in close-focus third-person, alternating between them. We explore Claire’s complicated marriage, her complicated feelings about her son’s (Meredith brother’s) eye injury that will keep him from a once-inevitable career in baseball, her complicated feelings toward being a dentist, her complicated feelings toward her mother’s death and her stepmother, her complicated feelings toward an almost-affair she had 20 years ago, and her complicated feelings toward Lisa Bellow’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks mother, Colleen Bellow.
It’s all just complicated, something I would normally consider a good thing as opposed to flat clichés, but paired with Perabo’s stubborn refusal to satisfyingly conclude any of these subplots, it’s maddening. This novel has one of the most ridiculously inconclusive conclusions I’ve ever experienced, and it made me angry I’d wasted my time with it.
Sure, there are good times along the way–but The Fall of Lisa Bellow ends on a note so bitterly pointless that it poisons my memory of the rest. 3/5 stars.
P.S. While I’m here, let me also say that this novel commits a cardinal sin: it names the race of the few characters of color, but doesn’t explicitly denote the white characters. It’s sloppy craft that worsened the feeling of un-resolution.
My copy of The Fall of Lisa Bellow came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.