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Life Sentences: A Novel

Life Sentences: A Novel

3.0 28
by Laura Lippman

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“From its gripping opening pages…Life Sentences may be the most absorbing, entertaining mystery published in the last year.”

Boston Globe


USA Today calls Laura Lippman, “A writing powerhouse,” and Life Sentences powerfully confirms it. Past and present, truth and memory collide in this


“From its gripping opening pages…Life Sentences may be the most absorbing, entertaining mystery published in the last year.”

Boston Globe


USA Today calls Laura Lippman, “A writing powerhouse,” and Life Sentences powerfully confirms it. Past and present, truth and memory collide in this searing novel from a New York Times bestselling author whose novels have won virtually every major prize bestowed for  crime fiction—from the Edgar® to the Anthony to the Agatha to the Nero Wolfe Award. As she did in her blockbuster What the Dead Know, Lippman takes a brief hiatus from her popular series character, Baltimore p.i. Tess Monaghan, to tell a riveting story of deceptions and dangerously fragile truths that People magazine says, “Succeeds brilliantly.”

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Sun-Times
Lippman has enriched literature as a whole.
Madison County Herald
Life Sentences is an original and intricately woven whydunnit, with characters as real as the Baltimore streets they live on.With Laura Lippman’s unique storytelling and love of the genre, mystery awards will surely keep pouring in.
Seattle Times
“Lippman knows exactly what she’s doing.”
Daily News
“Lippman, a Baltimore native, skillfully brings the racial and economic tensions of her middle-class neighborhood to life in this poignant page-turner.”
Washington Post
“Theirs is a strong and vivid story, one that will intrigue many readers—especially, I suspect, women who find echoes of their own lives and friendships in this drama.”
“Succeeds brilliantly... Lippman is in total command of her material, weaving strands about race, family myths and self-deception into a mystery so taut the reader is nearly afraid to keep going—and simultaneously powerless to stop.
People Magazine
"Succeeds brilliantly... Lippman is in total command of her material, weaving strands about race, family myths and self-deception into a mystery so taut the reader is nearly afraid to keep going—and simultaneously powerless to stop.
Baltimore writer Cassandra Fallows has carved out a modest reputation as an author of autobiographical novels, but recently she decided to venture into the more risky waters of nonfiction. As her first project, she researches the story of a former grade-school classmate who was accused and convicted of murdering her own infant son. Fallows's investigation uncovers troubling new facts about the case, but also disturbing realizations about her own mistaken presuppositions.
Janet Maslin
Ms. Lippman makes good use of the way memoirists often choose sides in stories of divorce, and of how their idealizing and demonizing respective parents may be deeply wrong. But her greatest sleight of hand is the maneuvering that deftly compromises Cassandra as she reignites old emotions. Not until the end of Life Sentences…will the reader grasp how fully Ms. Lippman has shaped and controlled this narrative. Warts and all, Cassandra becomes a sufficiently sympathetic character to lure readers into making the same mistakes that she makes in excavating old truths.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

This stunning stand-alone from bestseller Lippman (Baltimore Blues ) examines the extraordinary power and fragility of memories. Writer Cassandra Fallows achieved critical and commercial success with an account of her Baltimore childhood growing up in the 1960s and a follow-up dealing with her adult marriages and affairs. The merely modest success of her debut novel leads her back to nonfiction and the possibility of a book about grade school classmate Calliope Jenkins. Accused of murdering her infant son, Jenkins spent seven years in prison steadfastly declining to answer any questions about the disappearance and presumed death of her son. Fallows (white) tries to reconnect with three former classmate friends (black) to compare memories of Jenkins and research her story. In the process, she discovers the gulf (partially racial) that separates her memories of events from theirs. Fallows's pursuit of Jenkins's story becomes a rich, complex journey from self-deception to self-discovery. 20-city author tour. (Mar.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A writer discovers the power of silence in the latest stand-alone from Lippman (Hardly Knew Her, 2008, etc.). Author of two successful memoirs and a tepidly received novel, Cassandra Fallows is jolted by a reminder of her classmate, Calliope Jenkins, who served seven years in prison rather than reveal the whereabouts of her infant son. When a similar case in New Orleans returns Callie's name to the news, Cassandra leaves her Brooklyn brownstone for her home town of Baltimore, hoping to learn enough of Callie's story so that it will serve as an anchor for a fourth book. Coping with her parents, who split when Cassandra was ten (her classics-professor father fell in love with voluptuous young Annie Reynolds, an apparent victim of the race riots that engulfed Baltimore in the wake of the King assassination) is a challenge. And her efforts to find the absent Callie provoke present-day racial tensions of their own as she faces her former classmates, Tisha Barr and Donna Howard, who close ranks against her and stonewall her efforts. Even as her attraction for Callie's attorney, Reg Barr-Tisha's brother and Donna's husband-becomes an echo of her father's interracial relationship with Annie, Cassandra knows that she will never be part of their circle, any more than silent, wary Callie will ever become part of Cassandra's empire of words. Lippman's writing is powerful and her gaze unflinching as she invokes a world in which no one is either entirely guilty or truly innocent. Mystery Guild main selection. Featured alternate selection of Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Guild, Doubleday Book Club, Doubleday Large Print Club, BOMC2. Agent: Vicky Bijur/Vicky Bijur Literary Agency

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

Life Sentences

Chapter One

"Well," the bookstore manager said, "it is Valentine's Day."

It's not that bad, Cassandra wanted to say in her own defense. But she never wanted to sound peevish or disappointed. She must smile, be gracious and self-deprecating. She would emphasize how wonderfully intimate the audience was, providing her with an opportunity to talk, have a real exchange, not merely prate about herself. Besides, it wasn't tragic, drawing thirty people on a February night in the suburbs of San Francisco. On Valentine's Day. Most of the writers she knew would kill for thirty people under these circumstances, under any circumstances.

And there was no gain in reminding the bookseller...Beth, Betsy, Bitsy, oh dear, the name had vanished, her memory was increasingly buggy...that Cassandra had drawn almost two hundred people to this same store on this precise date four years earlier. Because that might imply she thought someone was to blame for to-night's turnout, and Cassandra Fallows didn't believe in blame. She was famous for it. Or had been.

She also was famous for rallying, and she did just that as she took five minutes to freshen up in the manager's office, brushing her hair and reapplying lipstick. Her hair, her worst feature as a child, was now her best, sleek and silver, but her lips seemed thinner. She adjusted her earrings, smoothed her skirt, reminding herself of her general good fortune. She had a job she loved; she was healthy. Lucky, I am lucky. She could quit now, never write a word again, and live quite comfortably. Her first two books were annuities, more reliable than any investment.

Her third book...ah, well, that was the unloved, misshapen child she was here to exalt.

At the lectern, she launched into a talk that was already honed and automatic ten days into the tour. There was a pediatric hospital across the road from where I grew up. The audience was mostly female, over forty. She used to get more men, but then her memoirs, especially the second one, had included unsparing detail about her promiscuity, a healthy appetite that had briefly gotten out of control in her early forties. It was a long-term-care facility, where children with extremely challenging diagnoses were treated for months, for years in some cases. Was that true? She hadn't done that much research about Kernan. The hospital had been skittish, dubious that a writer known for memoir was capable of creating fiction. Cassandra had decided to go whole hog, abandon herself to the libertine ways of a novelist. Forgo the fact-checking, the weeks in libraries, the conversations with family and friends, trying to make her memories gibe with hard, cold certainty. For the first time in her life...despite what her second husband had claimed...she made stuff up out of whole cloth. The book is an homage to The Secret Garden...in case the title doesn't make that clear enough...and it's set in the 1980s because that was a time when finding biological parents was still formidably difficult, almost taboo, a notion that began to lose favor in the 1990s and is increasingly out of fashion as biological parents gain more rights. It had never occurred to Cassandra that the world at large, much like the hospital, would be reluctant to accept her in this new role. The story is wholly fictional, although it's set in a real place.

She read her favorite passage. People laughed in some odd spots.

Question time. Cassandra never minded the predictability of the Q-and-A sessions, never resented being asked the same thing over and over. It didn't even bother her when people spoke of her father and mother and stepmother and ex-husbands as if they were characters in a novel, fictional constructs they were free to judge and psychoanalyze. But it disturbed her now when audience members wanted to pin down the "real" people in her third book. Was she Hannah, the watchful child who unwittingly sets a tragedy in motion? Or was she the boy in the body cast, Woodrow? Were the parents modeled on her own? They seemed so different, based on the historical record she had created. Was there a fire? An accident in the abandoned swimming pool that the family could never afford to repair?

"Did your father really drive a retired Marathon cab, painted purple?" asked one of the few men in the audience, who looked to be at least sixty. Retired, killing time at his wife's side. "I ask only because my father had an old DeSoto and . .?."

Of course, she thought, even as she smiled and nodded. You care about the details that you can relate back to yourself. I've told my story, committed over a quarter of a million words to paper so far. It's your turn. Again, she was not irked. Her audience's need to share was to be expected. If a writer was fortunate enough to excite people's imaginations, this was part of the bargain, especially for the memoir writer she had been and apparently would continue to be in the public's mind, at least for now. She had told her story, and that was the cue for them to tell theirs. Given what confession had done for her soul, how could she deny it to anyone else?

"Time for one last question," the store manager said, and pointed to a woman in the back. She wore a red raincoat, shiny with moisture, and a shapeless khaki hat that tied under her chin with a leather cord.

"Why do you get to write the story?"

Cassandra was at a loss for words.

"I'm not sure I understand," she began. "You mean, how do I write a novel about people who aren't me? Or are you asking how one gets published?"

"No, with the other books. Did you get permission to write them?"

"Permission to write about my own life?"

"But it's not just your life. It's your parents, your stepmother, friends. Did you let them read it first?"

Life Sentences. Copyright © by Laura Lippman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Since Laura Lippman’s debut, she has won multiple awards and critical acclaim for provocative, timely crime novels set in her beloved hometown of Baltimore. Laura has been nominated for more than 50 awards for crime fiction and won almost 20, including the Edgar. Her books have been translated into over twenty languages. Now a perennial New York Times bestselling author, she lives in Baltimore and New Orleans with her family.

Brief Biography

Baltimore, Maryland
Date of Birth:
January 31, 1959
Place of Birth:
Atlanta, Georgia
B.S., Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, 1981

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Life Sentences 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 28 reviews.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
Cassandra Fallows, a successful author, is casting about for a new project. She has written two well-received memoirs about her childhood and her two marriages, and then a novel that was panned by the critics. At loose ends, she hears a story about a woman in New Orleans whose baby is missing and the police have been unsuccessful in either finding the child or convincing the mother to cooperate. A sad enough story, but the next words make Cassandra sit up and take notice. The announcer refers the story back to a similiar one that occurred in Baltimore years before. That mother, Calliope Jenkins, had reported a child missing and spent seven years in prison rather than telling anyone what happened. Cassandra is entranced. She had grown up in Baltimore and in fact, knew Calliope or Callie, as they called her, as a childhood schoolmate. Cassandra had been one of the few white children at a local school and had become part of a group of girls, all of whom were African-American. Cassandra had been grateful to be in their group. There was Donna, the child of a prominent and politically successful family. Trisha was the go-getter and leader who kept the group together. Fatima was from a poorer family, but blossomed sexually long before the others. Then there was Calliope, whom the group nicknamed Callie, and who hung arond the edges of their group, but rarely spoke or participated. She was an enigma to those surrounding her even then. Cassandra was the child of an English professor and a stay at home mom. Her father had walked out on her mother and her when he met another woman that he claimed was the love of his life. As the girls grew up, they went to different high schools and lost touch. Cassandra is determined to go back to Baltimore and use this story as her next book. She will write about these childhood friendships and tell what really happened to Callie's baby. When she gets there, however, she quickly finds it will not be an easy job. No one is eager to talk to her or renew old friendships. She is rebuffed by all the other girls in the group, all of whom insist they have no idea where to find Callie and let Cassandra know that they wouldn't help her if they could as they don't want to be the focus of a book. Cassandra presses on. Can she find the truth that has been hidden for more than twenty years? As she pushes foward, she discovers that everyone involved has secrets, including some hard truths about her own childhood that she hasn't faced or known before. Laura Lippman has written an intriguing book. The characters are portrayed deftly, and remind us of how difficult it is to renew old friendships when life has moved us on to different pathways as adults. The plot twists and turns and pulls the reader in quickly. This book is recommended for all readers.
1louise1 More than 1 year ago
Cassandra Fallows, a successful author of two memoirs, is trying to bounce back after an unsuccessful turn as a novelist. A memoir! Brilliant idea, Cassandra thinks. Not such a good idea after all as of her research reveals things about herself that she really didn't want to know.
terrylazar More than 1 year ago
This was the most boring of Lippman's novels. No interesting characters, the plot was shabby, and there was no mystery to the ending. Lippman can do better than this. It certainly was original, no other author has come up with such a mundane read.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Author Cassandra Fallows¿ nonfiction work received critical acclaim and was best-sellers. Her venture into novels did okay, but not near the level of her memoirs of growing up in Baltimore in the turbulent 1960s or her revelations into her relationships; two failed marriages and a zillion affairs.

She considers writing a biography of her elementary school colleague notorious African-American Calliope Jenkins who two decades ago was accused of murdering her infant son. Jenkins has not answered one question on the infanticide charge. A Caucasian Cassandra looks up three African-American former classmates of both her and Jenkins in order to obtain their memories of her subject¿s childhood. However, she is taken aback as their recollections are Grand Canyonesque apart from hers.

Allowing Tess Monoghan to take a well deserved breather but remaining in Baltimore, Laura Lippman provides a deep character study that focuses on the tricks of memories. The gap between what Fallows recalls from their school days vs. the three interviewees is oceanic in size as relativity of perspective surface. Readers will enjoy this strong psychological tale that spotlights the tricks the mind employs to conceal the negative memories; especially those in which the person is more a passive observer rather than directly actively involved.

Harriet Klausner
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I have enjoyed all of Lippman's Tess Monaghan books for years. However, this book is a challenge to read. The characters are not identified clearly, and the book is confusing in it's direction and plot. Lippman is a better writer than is shown in this work. There are many inferences used in the writing style, but it just seems to add to the confusion about the characters and plot. I found myself a third of the way into the book and still wondered what it was about.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
VPI66 More than 1 year ago
The lead character delves into her past and comes to some different conclusions on the way things were. The plot is interesting as each of her former schoolmates have different versions of events in their past. However, I never felt any empathy with the lead character as she seemed to lack any depth. This book was just OK with me, not great and not terrible.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This novel just didn't work for me in so many ways. It was difficult to find a character to identify with, let alone sympathize with. Cassandra was self-absorbed and--for this reader at least--if I can't feel any empathy toward the main character, it's a tough uphill climb. I also felt frustrated at the end of the book because I had no idea why Donna and Reg's adopted daughter Aubrey was critical to Callie's finally talking about her dead son for whom she spent several years in prison. Aubrey couldn't have been Callie's child and not the child of her first child that was taken away. The time frame just doesn't work. So who was she? I had to actually look at a spoiler thread on a Life Sentences Facebook page to find out the answer. And even then I was disappointed. I had gotten the impression that the fact that Aubrey was a girl was critical to the story. Not. At least I felt somewhat relieved to find others were left clueless at the end of the novel as well. Lastly, there were two places in the novel where the author interchanges Cassandra and Callie's names as if she had them mixed up in her head. It might have been better to give them more different names. I've never read any other books by Laura Lippman, and I've often discovered that while I love one book by an author, another by the same author does nothing for me, so I'll reserve judgement on her other novels. Then again, Life Sentences left me not in any rush to go out and read another of her books right away.
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christytilleryfrench More than 1 year ago
Author Cassandra Fallows, with two successful memoirs behind her, tries her hand at fiction, which falls flat. When Cassandra reads about a former school friend jailed for contempt for not revealing the whereabouts of her baby's body, Cassandra gets the idea to write about her childhood and her friends, and the events that lead them to their present-day lives. She returns to Baltimore to interview her family and friends, only to be met with resistance. Calliope Jenkins, the woman accused of murdering her baby and hiding his body, has disappeared and no one wants to talk about where she is or what happened. As Cassandra digs deeper into the past, painful truths about her own life and those of her friends are revealed which could impact their lives in a negative way if disclosed. Laura Lippman, known for the Tess Monaghan series, is adroit at character development, slowly peeling away layers of persona as the book progresses. Life Sentences is a compelling read, exploring the dynamics of childhood friendships and family relationships.
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mollybea More than 1 year ago
The characters were dull. There was no person that was sympathetic. Most were predictable and had few interesting qualities. They were bland bland bland. Reading this book was like eating a white bread mashed potato sandwich. I finished it because I was waiting for a decent ending but was disappointed when I turned the last page. I did breathe a sigh of relief when it ended. The pain was over.
24girl More than 1 year ago
With two highly successful memoirs under her belt author Cassandra Fallows latest work of fiction falls flat. Knowing that there is nothing else in her life to write about she is left contemplating her next step as a writer when she hears a news story that she believes could be the subject of her next non-fiction bestseller. In New Orleans a child has disappeared and his mother refuses to tell anyone what happened to him. The news story compares this case to a case in Baltimore where Calliope Jenkins once spent seven years in prison for failing to reveal what happened to her missing infant son. As it turns out Cassandra and Callie where once friends beginning when they met elementary school along with a group of girls including Donna, Tisha and Fatima. Returning home to Baltimore to investigate the story Cassandra faces resentment and bitterness from Tisha, Donna and Fatima each for a different reason but all of it having to do with her first successful memoir and Cassandra's recounting of their experiences. Finding Callie and learning the truth about what happened all those years ago is a lot tougher than she originally thought but she's determined to make it happen. I was hoping for more of a mystery read similar to What the Dead Know but Life Sentences is more a book about relationships and dealing with memories than it is a suspense story. It takes a long look at family interactions, racial issues, friendship bonds and how each are dealt with by different characters in the story. I enjoyed the book overall but was a little disappointed by the ending. The book was about 2/3 complete before Callie's story starts to be told and by the time the truth about her missing son is revealed it's more of a let down than a satisfying ending. I recommend it more for general fiction readers than suspense lovers.
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