Book Review: THE FALL OF LISA BELLOW by Susan Perabo

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.


9781476761466

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.

Spoilers over!

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.

Friday Bookbag, 11.17.17

friday bookbag

Today I’m trying something new: sharing a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise received this week. I’m calling it Friday Bookbag and I plan to make it a weekly feature. I love spreading the book love around and it’s a nice way to give attention to some books I might not get the chance to review.

And so, without further ado, here are this week’s new books!


Pretend We Are Lovely by Noley Reid

9781941040669It’s the summer of 1982 in Blacksburg, Virginia–seven years after the suspicious death of a son and sibling–and the Sobel family is hungry.

Francie dresses in tennis skirts and ankle socks and weighs her grams of allotted carrots and iceberg lettuce. Her semi-estranged husband Tate prefers a packed fridge and hidden donuts. Daughters Enid, ten, and Vivvy, almost thirteen, are subtler versions of their parents, measuring their summer vacation by meals had or meals skipped. But at summer’s end, secrets both old and new emerge and Francie disappears, leaving the family teetering on the brink.

Told from alternating points of view by the four living Sobels, Pretend We Are Lovely is a sharp and darkly funny story of forgiveness, family secrets, and the losses we inherit. At its core is the ever-complicated and deeply-devoted bond of sisterhood as the girls, left mostly to their own devices, must navigate their way through school, find comfort in each other, and learn the difference between food and nourishment.

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Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love stories about family secrets and I especially love compassionate and funny stories about mental illness. I hope this book fits the bill for both.

There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon

9780307907943From the award-winning novelist Mary Gordon, here is a book whose twentieth-century wisdom can help us understand the difficulties we face in the twenty-first: There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moving novel about an American woman’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War, the lessons she learned, and how her story will shape her granddaughter’s path.

Marian cut herself off from her wealthy, conservative Irish Catholic family when she volunteered during the Spanish Civil War–an experience she has always kept to herself. Now in her nineties, she shares her Rhode Island cottage with her granddaughter, Amelia, a young woman of good heart but with only a vague notion of life’s purpose. Their daily existence is intertwined with Marian’s secret past: the blow to her youthful idealism when she witnessed the brutalities on both sides of Franco’s war and the romance that left her trapped in Spain in perilous circumstances for nearly a decade. When Marian is diagnosed with cancer, she finally speaks about what happened to her during those years–personal and ethical challenges nearly unthinkable to Amelia’s millennial generation, as well as the unexpected gifts of true love and true friendship.

Marian’s story compels Amelia to make her own journey to Spain, to reconcile her grandmother’s past with her own uncertain future. With their exquisite female bond at its core, this novel, which explores how character is forged in a particular moment in history and passed down through the generations, is especially relevant in our own time. It is a call to arms–a call to speak honestly about evil when it is before us, and to speak equally about goodness.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I’ll admit that I saw the mention of the Spanish Civil War and got tunnel vision–I’m really interested in that period in history and I’m curious as to how the novel will handle it. I find the blurb wordy and heavy-handed (especially with the weird reference to the “millennial generation”) but I’m willing to take a chance on this one since sometimes blurbs are misleading. I have a good feeling!

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

9781476761466What happens to the girl left behind?

When a masked gunman enters a local sandwich shop in broad daylight, Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself on the filthy floor, cowering face-to-face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow–the most popular girl in her eighth-grade class. Lying there, Meredith is utterly convinced she is going to die. Then the gunman orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith behind.

As the community stages vigils and searches, Meredith’s mother, Claire, toggles between jubilation that her daughter is alive and the grievous knowledge that she is irreparably changed. Her daughter is here, but not–and Claire grows desperate to reach Meredith. But Meredith is in a place where Claire can’t go, following Lisa Bellow where no one else can.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is gripping and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime and a dark, beautifully rendered illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, searches for healing.

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I like literary fiction that has a thriller tinge (as well as full-on literary thrillers in the vein of Gillian Flynn), and this book seems to have that suspenseful edge to it. I’m not sure how big a role gun violence will play in this book (other than the reference to the masked gunman), but that element also seems timely.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!