Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Book Review: The Likeness [2008]

I'm not sure what I would have done if I'd finished In the Woods and The Likeness hadn't been waiting for me at the library--gnashed my teeth and written an angry blog post, perhaps. Actually (gasp) run out and purchased the book? Thankfully, no drastic actions were necessary. As I said in my review of the first book, The Likeness actually caught my eye several years ago, but I thought I'd better start at the beginning.

Tana French's follow-up picks up in the aftermath of Operation Vestal with the story of Cassandra Maddox, whose relationship with the narrator of In the Woods ended in flaming ruin, largely because of his inability to deal with the past. Subsequently, Cassie left the murder squad and joined Domestic Violence, which she finds much less satisfying. When she is called to advise on a homicide case run by her new boyfriend Sam O'Neill and her old boss in Undercover, Frank Mackey, she is startled to find that the victim appears to be her exact double and was using an alias that she and Mackey created together many years ago.

Mackey comes up with an unorthodox plan to uncover her killer's identity: Cassie will revisit her undercover days and resume the victim's life as if she had been wounded, rather than killed. Although she first greets his scheme with understandable skepticism, going undercover also offers Cassie a much-needed break from the lingering effects of Operation Vestal. However, the downside is that the culprit is likely among the four people with whom the victim, Lexie Madison, shared an old mansion in the country. As Cassie gradually becomes comfortable in Lexie's life, she also grows close to her housemates--a group of inseparable, eccentric graduate students--and learns more about "Lexie's" life before she assumed her own false identity. Will the killer figure out Cassie's game before she has a chance to figure out the truth of what happened to Lexie?

Grade: A-

The Likeness has a fascinating premise that I'm not sure I ever fully embraced. This might be because I've never met someone who looks exactly like me; I have been mistaken for other people, however, and that's always a disconcerting feeling. Despite the fact that I was somewhat reluctant to buy in, The Likeness was easily one of the best books I've read recently, and an excellent follow-up to In the Woods. It has the same deft, location-oriented nostalgia and emotional resonance, although this time the setting is Whitethorn House rather than the woods. French does a masterful job of blurring the lines of Cassie's identity as her personality becomes subsumed into "Lexie." Even though the operation must have a finite end, the illusion of a fresh start is so powerful that she is tempted to embrace it as a safe haven, even as the housemates' relationships are more and more strained because of her presence. The Likeness is suspense of the most excruciating and drawn-out variety; its tension is not predicated on imminent danger and horrific acts, but on the slow breakdown of human relationships and the agony of inevitable endings.

Random Thoughts:

I listened to The Likeness on audio CD, and that was definitely a good decision. I can't testify for the accuracy of the various Irish accents employed by the narrator, but there's something about the rhythm of French's language and narrative description that lends itself to that medium.

French tends to weave a certain amount of commentary on Irish politics or the "state of the nation" into her novels, and The Likeness is no exception. Sometimes these are quick comments about the concept of land and ownership, and sometimes they're more lengthy discourses that can bring the plot (in this case, already very slow to unfold) to a grinding halt. Overall, it's fascinating to find out more about another culture that is similar to ours, yet very different at the same time.

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Anonymous said...

So explain to me how she manages to assume this person's identity and live among the victim's housemates -- don't the housemates realize she's dead (in which case, how did the police find out)? Or is she not actually supposed to be impersonating the woman, just freaking out her roommates?

Helgagrace said...

Ok, so the girl is found dead in a cottage by a farmer or something, but it was a very slow death and the housemates claim that she just left the house and they never saw her again. So they put out the story that she was just wounded, not killed, and have Cassie come back from "the hospital" to impersonate the victim. If one of them is the killer, they will of course be very freaked out . . . if they're innocent, then they'll be happy to have their friend back, right?