The Fall of Lisa Bellow
By Susan Perabo
Simon & Schuster
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
To be clear right away, Susan Perabo's The Fall of Lisa Bellow is not a crime thriller, despite its salacious premise of a 13-year-old girl who is kidnapped at a convenience store one random day for mysterious reasons; and fans of that genre who are expecting one will be profoundly disappointed by this book, which is why I warn you right off the bat. (Just for one big example, we never do learn the fate of the kidnapped girl, which will make fans of whodunits throw this book across the room in anger by the end. Buyer beware.) What this book actually is, then, is a smart and deep character study about all the people who were incidentally affected by this crime in the small suburban community where they live; chiefly fellow 13-year-old Meredith Oliver, who was also at the convenience store during the botched robbery, and comes to realize that the reason Lisa was taken hostage and not her was precisely because of the better looks and more expensive clothes that made Lisa a bullying "Mean Girl" who Meredith hated, an emotionally complex realization that she then grapples with to various levels of success and failure over the next year. This in turn then affects her mother, Claire, already struggling with the normal travails of Meredith becoming a teenager that year, questioning her identity as a parent and wife as she grows from middle-age into a "woman of a certain age;" and meanwhile there is older brother Evan, who has recently suffered through a trauma in his own right (an eye-socket baseball injury that has left him semi-blind, his theoretical future career as a pro player now over), and whose own recovery is compared regularly to the ever-widening rabbithole of despair that Meredith finds herself falling into as the months continue.
It's a pretty great domestic drama as far as domestic dramas go, although that comes with the usual caveat that you need to be in the same position as the protagonist (a middle-class, middle-aged, suburban mom, that is) to enjoy this book at its fullest; as someone who's the diametric opposite of that, Claire's hand-wringing over being a good parent, and her struggles to be her own unique person within a stultifying suburban environment, largely went over my head, a specific weakness of author Perabo herself that I didn't experience in, say, the similarly set but much better Little Children by Tom Perrotta. But that said, there are some wonderfully nasty little moments thrown in here and there as well, a reflection of this short-story veteran and Pushcart winner's revered status among fans of edgy academic material, that keep things lively no matter what kind of reader you are. (I especially loved dentist Claire's flashback experience with causing deliberate pain to a seven-year-old patient she had discovered had been bullying her daughter at school, and the way she simply shrugs off the offended horror of her goodie-good husband when she admits it to him, a nice shorthand method for getting across just how far Claire will go as a mother to protect her children.) Not a book I would've sought out on my own, but one I'm glad that Simon & Schuster sent my way, this is perfect reading material for those who are usually force-fed an unending sludge pile of "chick-lit" nonsense by the mainstream media, and are desperately on the lookout for something darker and meatier.
Out of 10: 8.2, or 9.2 for fans of domestic dramas