What happens to the girl left behind?
A masked man with a gun enters a sandwich shop in broad daylight, and Meredith Oliver suddenly finds herself ordered to the filthy floor, where she cowers face to face with her nemesis, Lisa Bellow, the most popular girl in her eighth grade class. The minutes tick inexorably by, and Meredith lurches between comforting the sobbing Lisa and imagining her own impending death. Then the man orders Lisa Bellow to stand and come with him, leaving Meredith the girl left behind.
After Lisa’s abduction, Meredith spends most days in her room. As the community stages vigils and searches, Claire, Meredith’s mother, is torn between relief that her daughter is alive, and helplessness over her inability to protect or even comfort her child. Her daughter is here, but not.
Like Everything I Never Told You and Room, The Fall of Lisa Bellow is edgy and original, a hair-raising exploration of the ripple effects of an unthinkable crime. It is a dark, beautifully rendered, and gripping novel about coping, about coming-of-age, and about forgiveness. It is also a beautiful illustration of how one family, broken by tragedy, finds healing.
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||6.60(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
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The Fall of Lisa Bellow
Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, “This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me.”
She would say these things to herself because she liked the moment when she suddenly became uncertain that those things she was saying were in fact true, liked the way it made her feel unmoored, the hole of doubt that opened up inside her, and the wind that blew through that hole. It was a physical sensation, as real as cresting the first incline of a roller coaster, the momentum shift from ascending to descending. It was, Meredith had decided, precisely like sucking on a giant, whole-body Mentho-Lyptus cough drop, the way it cleared her out, head to toe. And she liked equally—not more and not less, because it was just the same sensation backward—the moment she became re-certain that those things were true—this is me, this is really me—when the hole closed, and the anchor caught, and she could smell the eggs her father was scrambling downstairs.
Meredith had been doing the mirror thing for as long as she could remember, on mornings both ordinary (today, for instance) and memorable (first days of school, birthdays, etc). Sometimes she went months without doing it, and then she’d resume for no reason she could name, and she did not think of it as a game or a habit or a meditation, but only her mirror thing. But even during those times when she called on it most, she didn’t do it every day. She didn’t want the trick to wear out. She suspected that if she overused it, it would lose its magic.
This morning the shower roared to life, the pipes humming with heat. This was encouraging, despite the fact that it would delay her from using the bathroom herself. Since Evan’s injury, Meredith could read his mood, predict how the day would go, by how much of his morning bathroom routine was completed. Because the bathroom was situated between their two bedrooms, the entire routine could easily be monitored by sound alone. Some days were pill-only days, the creak of the medicine cabinet opening, the rattle of the bottle, two seconds of running water—just long enough for him to gather a handful to wash down the pill, no cup required—the creak of the cabinet closing, followed by . . . silence. No brushing of teeth, no shower, no shave. On those days he might just go back to bed, and then there would be a half hour of sitcom-worthy upstairs/downstairs, first her mother up and down, then her father up and down, then her mother again, the anxiety rising with every trip, a variety of knocks (the breakfast-is-waiting, the tender-but-firm, the we-know-you-can-hear-us), an assortment of appeals (“Evan, sweetie . . .” “Hey, pal . . .” “Getting late, kiddo . . .” “Evan, I’m serious . . .”). Often this was still happening when Meredith left the house to walk to school, her brother already tardy (the high school started a half hour earlier than the middle school), her parents playing out precisely the same scene they’d played out on the last pill-only day. But thankfully, Meredith thought, the pill-only days were now fewer and further between. Now most days were at least pill-and-toothbrush days, and after one round of upstairs/downstairs Evan would appear at the kitchen table, unshaven but otherwise only marginally disheveled, his good eye flitting toward the clock every few minutes, sometimes a few lame jokes or minor complaints about the weather or the consistency of his eggs.
Meredith suspected that he got up now more often than not because he’d decided, maybe even subconsciously, that school was a better place for him to pass the day than home. Everywhere he spent any time at all—home, school, gym, hospital—was a delicate balance of distraction versus reminder, but at least at school the distractions were constant and diverse, a barrage coming at such a rapid-fire pace that sometimes he probably forgot for seconds or minutes about what had happened.
This day, Wednesday, there was brushing and showering and even the on-and-off water of a shave, which suggested not only a sulky resignation to, but perhaps actual interest in, the day, something he was looking forward to. Maybe it was the sunshine blazing through the bedroom windows. Maybe there was a party this weekend. Maybe there was a girl he wanted to talk to. Maybe his headache was just a dull pulse, an echo of pain more than the pain itself.
She didn’t blame him for going back to bed some mornings, or for his sulky resignation. She was not selfish enough to think him selfish. She liked to believe she was the only person in the world who truly understood him, so she was cautious not to judge, but just to observe. Carefully observe. The bathroom routine. The state of his bedroom. The hours spent on homework versus the hours spent on television versus the hours lying on his bed petting the tolerant cat. The tentative, jerky drives around the block. The rattle of pills tumbling out of the green bottle. The video games, some of which he could play, but most of which made his headaches worse. Smaller details: the part of his hair, reaching for his fork and missing it by half an inch, the angle of his iPhone, the thwack of the little rubber basketball as it bounced off the side of the mini backboard that hung over his closet door. And the thing he did with the tree by the front porch, touching the tip of a single branch with the tip of his finger. For the last couple of months he’d done this every time he left the house, and sometimes she saw him standing out there after school, doing it when he thought no one was watching.
He wore glasses now, mostly for protection of the now priceless right eye but also to obscure the view of the damage on the left. Ironically, neither lens of his black-framed glasses required any actual correction—the left lens was simply darkened, the right lens was simply glass.
In late March, just over six months ago now, Evan had been standing in the on-deck circle at baseball practice when a teammate hit a foul ball into his face. According to witnesses Evan had been maybe twenty-five feet from the plate, windmilling the bat around, stretching his shoulders, hooking the bat behind his back . . . the usual routine, the same old, same old. Meredith could picture this perfectly, had replayed the scene a million times, though she hadn’t been there. The windmill, the hook, the things he’d done thousands of times, tens of thousands, loving the weight of the bat in his hand, the sun in his eyes, the confidence of knowing this one central thing about himself: he was really, really good at baseball.
When he was a sophomore, the city paper had named him the starting catcher on the all-region team, which was very rare. Their region was made up of a dozen suburban high schools west of the city, each suburb nearly a city in and of itself. Players like that, he’d told Meredith, guys who made all-region as sophomores, wound up at D1 schools, sometimes with full scholarships. It had happened abruptly; for a long time he was good, and then something changed—something physical, something in his body, something he freely, cheerfully admitted he couldn’t take any credit for himself, a balance of strength and precision that elevated his skill both at and behind the plate—and suddenly he was really good. By that day in March he was nine games into his junior season and batting .470.
So there he was in the on-deck circle, thinking all these wonderful things about himself, or so Meredith imagined. (Sometimes, in her mind, she was watching from the stands; other times she stood no more than a foot or two away from him, so close she could hear the impact of ball on bone.) No one did anything wrong. No mistakes were made. Evan was wearing a helmet. He was standing in the appropriate spot. He wasn’t goofing off. There was nobody you could point to and blame, not the kid (Matt Bowman) at the plate, not the bench coach, not the coach throwing batting practice, not Evan. It was just something that happened, a fraction of a second that you couldn’t pin on anybody.
And then he was on the ground. “I never saw it coming,” he’d told her months later, abruptly, bitterly, sitting on the back patio one humid July evening between surgery three and surgery four. It was the only time he’d ever talked to her about that day. “Blindsided,” he’d said, scoffing. A mosquito had landed on his knee and he’d just sat there and watched it bite him, didn’t even try to swat it away. Never saw it. Not for one second.
The doctor said that Evan’s entire left eye socket was crushed beyond repair. A blow-out fracture, he called it. The doctor said, “Imagine stepping on an ice cream cone.” Meredith would never forget this, sitting in the hospital room, Evan sedated, she on a stiff vinyl chair looking out the window at the hospital parking lot, the doctor somberly relaying the news to her tight-lipped parents. “Imagine stepping on an ice cream cone.” Why hadn’t she been sent out of the room prior to this doctor-parent consultation? Why didn’t her parents think to say, “Hold on, doctor, give us a minute—Mer, honey, why don’t you run down to the coffee shop and get a chocolate muffin while we talk to the doctor?”
No, she was sitting on that hard, squeaky chair, wishing she could un-hear the sentence and un-see the image. The doctor said it was the worst baseball eye injury he’d ever encountered, that the best-case scenario was that Evan would regain some function (not “sight”—he plainly did not say “sight,” but “function”) in his left eye, but that he’d never play baseball competitively again.
As a catcher, Evan had been the recipient of numerous home-plate collisions, taken pitches off the shoulders and chest and knees and toes and facemask. He’d been banged up since she could remember; sometimes he seemed like one big purple bruise. Always, he recovered. But this was not like anything else.
More often than not they ate breakfast together, as a family, around the kitchen table in the sunny breakfast nook that looked out onto the backyard. Having breakfast together was a holdover from earlier years, when The Baseball Clock ruled the world, when Evan’s practices or games always ran right through the evening and most dinners (except in the dead of winter) were sandwiches or one-pot pasta or French bread pizza in front of the television whenever you got hungry, or a floppy hot dog from a concession stand.
Breakfast was the meal where they could actually sit together for fifteen or twenty minutes, during which her father inevitably asked everyone to set a goal for the day. They didn’t have to be serious goals—her father wasn’t that guy—but were intended, he always said, to let everyone know something about what the others were doing as they went about their day. Meredith’s stated goals were often lies having to do with academics—“I want to do well on my English test,” etc. Not that this wasn’t true, but her actual, pressing goals were almost always social in nature, and she didn’t feel like letting on to her entire family just how shallow she really was.
“I’m going to go for a walk during lunch,” her father said. Her father’s response to Evan’s injury had been to pursue an accelerated course of self-improvement in order that he might be better able to meet everyone’s needs, whatever they might be. Crushed eye socket? I got that! His goals were often exercise or nutrition related, but once during the summer Meredith looked out her bedroom window and there was her father lying on the hammock in the backyard, reading the Bible, the intolerant cat grabbing at the shoelaces that hung through the netting of the hammock, her father threatening the intolerant cat by pretending to smack it with the Bible. The Bible, which had apparently belonged to her great-grandmother but which no one in the family, as far as Meredith could tell, had so much as glanced at since her great-grandmother’s death.
“What d’ya think?” her father asked her mother now. “Care to join me?”
Her parents worked together, in the same office, the office of whirring drills and crying children, the office of the mingling smells of mint and artificial fruit flavors, the office she had adored as a child. Their practice was part of a sprawling, sparkling suburban medical park—her father referred to it as Sick City. All the buildings were identical on the outside, so patients routinely showed up at the dentist for a colonoscopy, or the orthopedist for a pap smear. But past the waiting room there was no mistaking where you were, and at the age of six or seven there was nowhere Meredith would have rather played, no amusement park more wonderful than those half-dozen chairs and the swiveling tables and the lights that dropped down from overhead like alien instruments. This was a game she and Evan especially enjoyed: Alien Examination. One of them would put on a surgical mask and the protective eyewear, the other would lie on the chair cloaked in the heavy x-ray blanket. The alien examiner would pull the light down and shine it on various parts of the specimen’s face, prodding with a gloved finger at mouth, nose, eye, ear: What does this do? How does this work? What do you use this for? How lucky she and Evan had been—she knew this even (especially?) when annoyed by them now—that their parents had let them play with everything in that office, let them have the run of the place on Sunday afternoons while they caught up on paperwork. She and Evan could have broken those chairs in a hundred different ways during Alien Examination, but they never did.
“We could walk that trail in the park,” her father said. Ah, the oft-mentioned wooded trail in the park adjacent to Sick City, a pretty jigsaw-puzzle image full of personal promise. It was not really for the sick; it was the place already healthy people went to get even healthier.
“Maybe,” her mother said vaguely.
Perhaps, Meredith thought, it was only for Evan that they kept doing it, this pointless exercise, so things would seem normal. Her mother was standing at the counter pouring Evan a tall glass of milk. This was something he could not do for himself anymore. He could not pour a simple glass of milk. Meredith had watched him try, early on, and miss the glass entirely, as if he were actually, entirely, blind. “Some things are just a little different,” he’d told her, soaking up the puddle of milk beside the glass, “but some things are impossible. Pouring—impossible. I can see the glass. I just don’t know where it is.”
“Today I will slay dragons,” Evan said, taking the milk from his mother’s hand. “I will dig to the center of the earth. I will reconcile warring nations. And I will learn to play the violin.”
“Modest goals,” her father said. “Is that it?”
“That plus a big piece of pie,” he said. Then he winked at her. Meredith hated the wink now. Hated it. It bothered her that when her brother winked, he could not see at all. Why should that bother her? It was his wink, his darkness. Still, she couldn’t stand it. “What d’ya think?” he asked her. “Care to join me?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll pencil it in.”
At home there was Evan, and half-blind Evan was still Evan, still the safety net, whether he could actually catch her or not. At school there was no net.
The distance between home and Parkway North Middle School, a distance Meredith traveled by herself between 7:42 and 8:05 every single morning, seemed vast, a lonesome valley of suburban achievement, purring cars in driveways, crows the size of small cats milling about on rolling lawns, joggers attached to their NPR podcasts. She walked alone not because she had no friends, but because all her friends took the school bus. She lived—by some trick of fate, some ignorance of her parents when they’d purchased their dream home in their dream suburb prior to having school-aged children—in the unlucky zone just barely inside the 1.25-mile radius that required her to walk to school. Everyone who lived more than 1.25 miles from school got to take the school bus. And not that she would have loved the school bus—she knew this from friends and field trips, and, to be honest, from movies—but the school bus definitely seemed easier than walking, especially when it was rainy or cold. Her house was 1.19 miles from school, which she knew precisely because when Evan had started sixth grade, her father had driven the route twice to check to make sure the district transportation committee was right. Alas. And so she walked, alone, and at some point in the last quarter mile a giant bus barreled past her, sending her hair fluttering, and she would quicken her steps so that she could meet her friends when they disembarked, so they could enter at the glass doors as a unified front.
Numbers were essential. Solidarity was all.
It had been all downhill since fifth grade. Sometimes Meredith looked back on that golden year and felt a pang of nostalgia so keenly that she thought she might actually die. Fifth grade. Yes there were cliques, but the cliques didn’t really mean anything in fifth grade. They were pretend distinctions between groups that rarely, if ever, translated into any real action or consequence. In fifth grade you were still friends with everyone, whether you liked it or not, because it was easier for the adults that way. Your parents didn’t particularly care if you wanted to carpool with someone else to swimming lessons; it was convenient for you and Amanda Hammels to travel together, even if you never talked to each other in school, so, by god, that was the way it was going to be. Your teachers assigned you to groups with the expectation you could and should be able to work with anyone. Yes, in fifth grade there were some girls flirting with makeup and, yes, there were some girls flirting with boys, but it was all still as artificial as glittery lip gloss, all part of a world that no one yet really belonged to or understood. Plus, in fifth grade you could remember even further back, all the way back to first and second grade—you still walked down those same halls!—when some girl might have wet her pants or a boy might have cried for his mother or any number of humiliating things that held you all together, put you on an even playing field. As long as you were in that elementary school, in that physical space, everything that happened had happened equally to everyone.
But middle school? A different story. Turned out, what happened in elementary school stayed in elementary school. In sixth grade the playing field lurched to an impossible angle. How did it happen, the summer between fifth and sixth grade, how could it happen so abruptly that a level playing field could tilt so violently, tilt precisely like the Titanic, in a matter of mere hours the night before the first day of sixth grade? Meredith had seen the movie and this was the image she couldn’t get out of her mind: everyone tumbling from the top of the ship down to the bottom, sliding, skidding, careening, frantically grabbing hold of bolted down deckchairs and stair railings. The sliders were clearly the ones who had not anticipated the tilt. Anyone who was going to get off the boat safely had gotten off already. When? In June?
Too late! The last days of August, sixth grade begins, the great slide happens, the playing field tilts, and Meredith finds herself clinging to the ship, somewhere near the middle, around the shuffleboard courts, say. She is not down at the bottom near the icy water, but she can feel the chill of it below her dangling feet, and she has no idea what’s happened.
She had not gotten the memo about the iceberg.
And since then, since literally that first day of sixth grade, over two years ago, she had been trying to get her footing, trying to find her place.
Now she met her best friends Jules and Kristy at the corner of the parking lot where a herd of school buses belched and hissed. Kristy had been battling a head cold all week and had a tissue pressed to her nose, lest some shiny snot be detected by the snot police. They entered the school through the tall glass doors in the front—there was a security guard, but he was unarmed, and mostly for show. They went to their lockers. This was the most dangerous part of the day, the unstructured time at the lockers. Any social advantage that was to be gained would be gained during these precious few minutes. Of course, the opposite was also true. By the time first period started, you could feel so small, so pointless, that there’d be no chance for recovery. Meredith knew this all too well. Her locker was next to Lisa Bellow’s.
Since the beginning of the school year Lisa Bellow had had a picture of a boy in her locker, taped on the inside of the door. Meredith could see it out of the corner of her eye while she unloaded her books and supplies into her own locker. In the photograph, the boy was standing on a white sandy beach. He was wearing black board shorts and sunglasses and holding a blue Frisbee. He was tan and had muscular arms, and Meredith might have suspected the picture had been cut from a magazine were it not so clearly a photograph: glossy, catching the light so that, depending on the angle of the locker door, sometimes the glare made it impossible to see the right side of the boy’s body. Lisa had other things taped to her locker door—pictures of her friends, a bumper sticker from Virginia Beach, a birthday card—but the boy on the beach was at eye level, front and center, and some mornings as she turned from her own locker Meredith could not help but stare at it, her eyes drawn to it in a way she couldn’t even explain. It wasn’t like she’d never seen a hot guy before. It was just that everything about the photograph, every grain of sand, every crest of every wave, every finger and toe, was so beautiful.
Once Lisa caught Meredith staring at the picture. Meredith wasn’t sure, but it was entirely possible that her mouth was open as she stared, not gaping but definitely open, and Lisa rolled her eyes and gave a tiny little huff with her nose before she slammed the locker shut and twirled away, her golden hair a perfectly silky wave of dismissal. The message was clear: not only was Meredith unworthy of looking at the picture of the beautiful boyfriend, but she was also unworthy of any actual verbal response from Lisa. This was no surprise. Despite the proximity of their lockers, Lisa had not spoken a single word to Meredith for the entire year.
Lisa Bellow and her friends had gotten the memo about the iceberg. It was possible that they had written the memo. It was even conceivable, Meredith had long ago decided, that they had somehow been responsible for the iceberg in the first place. Lisa and her pack, a half dozen girls with all-season-tanned legs and perky little boobs, had outgrown middle school boys by about November of seventh grade. Now, in eighth grade, some of them were dating boys that Evan knew, and Evan was a senior. Lisa and her friends sashayed around Parkway North Middle School, licking their lips to keep them moist and primed for the next cutting comment about somebody’s stringy hair or somebody’s ugly shoes. Once, the year before, Meredith had been sitting at a lunch table talking to her friends and someone called her name and she turned around and from two tables away Lisa Bellow called, “Can you please sit on the middle of your chair so your butt’s not hanging over the side? We’re trying to eat.” Lisa’s table erupted into laughter; even a few girls at Meredith’s table laughed, which was the worst part. She felt herself withering inside, and instead of saying something clever just scooted toward the center of her chair and forever since made sure she was positioned correctly.
Meredith hated them. Jules and Kristy hated them. Most of the girls hated them. But then why were they the most popular girls in the school? It didn’t make any sense, and Meredith and her friends had spent countless hours analyzing the data. Eventually they realized: the bitches’ power came from their numbers; through some trick, two of them seemed like five, three like ten. This was partly because they clearly worked hard to be indistinguishable from one another, like Stormtroopers, Meredith often thought as she watched them cut a swath down the eighth-grade hall. Though their hair was different shades, they all wore it the same way, and they all wore too much eye makeup, and they all wore black leggings and cold-shoulder tops, and this year they all wore gold gladiator sandals, which Meredith thought were the stupidest shoes she’d ever seen. Lisa was always attached to Becca Nichols or Abby Luckett or Amanda Hammels or one of the aspirant bitches, and they stood apart and sneered at your inadequacies (those known and unknown to you) and rolled their eyes with such unabashed superiority that you really had no earthly choice but to despise them. These were girls, Meredith thought, who could only be loved by their grandparents and maybe—maybe—Jesus.
And yet, Meredith always thought. And yet. It wasn’t like she herself was any great prize. She was at least ten pounds overweight, and she was forever saying something she thought was funny until the instant it passed her lips, at which point she realized it was idiotic. Also she had been staring at that picture in Lisa’s locker, no denying that, because she stared at things—sometimes boys, but other things, too, for too long, weirdly long, until even her friends were like, um, hello? Also, she didn’t excel at a single thing. Sometimes she lay in bed at night listing her attributes in a calculated, disinterested manner, as if she were not herself but a project she was working on for the science fair. She could say, totally objectively, that she was very good, likely in the top 5 percent, of American thirteen-year-old girls at math. And she was good, likely top 25 percent, of American thirteen-year-old girls at field hockey, clarinet, and bumper pool. Yes, there were other talents: eavesdropping, for one, a cousin to staring but less obvious to outside observers. Catching popcorn or M&M’s in her mouth, especially when tossed by Evan. Picking things up off the bottom of a swimming pool with her toes. And pretending, perhaps her greatest but least useful skill—certainly less useful than retrieving a pair of sunken goggles. But she wasn’t truly exceptional at anything. No special gift set her apart from any of the other ten million thirteen-year-olds in the world. Last year Jules had won an award for an essay about diversity; Evan had been the best catcher in the whole region; even Lisa Bellow was awesome at being a bitch. Still, Meredith always reminded herself when at her lowest, at least there were actual freaking thoughts in her brain, unlike Lisa Bellow and company. At least she wasn’t just pushing out her boobs every second of the day.
Also, she regularly reminded herself, there were lots of girls who were way less popular than she was. The girls at the very bottom—like the bottom 10 percent—were staying at the very bottom, because they were there for a real and universally agreed upon reason, drugged out, silent, or just hopelessly weird. But then there were the girls who made up the huge middle—the lower-middle and the middle-middle and the higher-middle. This was 80 percent of the eighth grade class, which at their school meant about a hundred girls, and the movement within this middle group seemed to shift daily, sometimes hourly. And then of course there were the popular girls, the top 10 percent—Lisa and Abby and Becca and Amanda and the rest.
On this day, Wednesday the eighth of October, Meredith and Jules and Kristy were on the high end of the middle-middle. They had been friends for years, had stepped and been stepped on, turned and been turned on, but their friendship remained intact, despite Jules’s wandering eye and Kristy’s increasing, sometimes socially debilitating, shyness.
Meredith did not know exactly what she herself aspired to, socially. She only knew that she aspired.
Today was Wednesday, which meant the day started with social studies. (“Our whole freaking lives are social studies,” Jules liked to say.) The class was made tolerable almost entirely by the presence of Steven Overbeck, who sat directly behind her and sometimes whispered passages from the earnest social studies textbook in funny accents. For some reason, and it wasn’t only because he was cute, she found this hilarious, and it was always a trial, but a happy trial, to get through the class without bursting out laughing. “And zen,” Steven whispered, “zee Haitian family must take zere clothes down to zee rivah.” Steven, who had only moved to the school a year before, did other things to make her laugh. Her favorite was when he drew elaborate watches on his wrists with his blue Bic pen. Sometimes the watches were fancy and sometimes plain, sometimes studded with jewels and sometimes children’s watches with cartoon characters’ arms pointing to the numbers. Once he drew a watch that was broken, the springs jutting from the face, the numbers scattered across his arm. She thought Steven Overbeck was probably a genius.
Today the teacher was called away in the middle of the lesson and the room predictably erupted into chaos a split second after her departure. Steven asked if he could draw a watch on her wrist.
“Um, sure,” she said, before realizing this would mean he actually had to touch her wrist—but too late, he was already scooting his chair around to the side of her desk. With his blue Bic pen he lightly drew a circle on the top of her wrist and she broke out in goose bumps on both arms. She prayed he did not notice.
“Time is it?” he asked.
She looked up at the clock. “Eight forty-five.”
“No,” he said. “What time is it on this watch? Just pick a time. But choose wisely.”
She smiled. Her face felt weird, a little numb, and she hoped it didn’t look weird. “Why choose wisely?”
“Because it’s going to be that time all day,” he said. His blond bangs sprouted up in a way that looked intentional—a little boy-band-ish, even—but which she knew was totally accidental, probably the result of a fitful sleep. This added to his appeal.
“Um. Two fifteen.”
“Okay. Be sure to look at it exactly at two fifteen,” he said. He drew the straps and then, with only the tips of his fingers, turned her hand over and drew the buckle on the back of her wrist.
“Nice,” she said. Her heart was hammering, and it continued to hammer throughout the library period. The library period was a fake period during the day, as far as she could tell, that allowed teachers to go to the teachers’ lounge and drink Red Bull. Otherwise she wasn’t sure what the point was. It was like study hall but with no help. It was like reading practice, so the school could announce to the community that it embraced reading.
“What is that?” Kristy asked at the circular library table, leaning halfway over Meredith to get a better look, Kleenex still anchored in place. It was Kristy who suffered the most, who was sick with worry half the time. Kristy didn’t even like to pee at school. What if someone heard? What if someone said something about the sound her pee made hitting the toilet water? These were the things that weighed on her.
“Nothing,” Meredith said. “I mean, just—”
“Did you draw that?”
Kristy raised her eyebrows. “Oh, reeeeeally?”
“Stop,” Meredith said, hoping she wouldn’t.
“So is this official?”
“Stop! It’s a picture of a watch.”
“Which he drew on you,” Kristy said.
An hour later, at lunch, Jules swung in beside her.
“Did you hear?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” Meredith said. “Did I?”
“Becca Nichols’s sister is pregnant.”
“Whoa,” Meredith said.
“She’s sixteen. And she’s going to have it. Six-teen. SIX-teen.”
Jules spit a piece of gum into her hand and then stuck it on the bottom of the cafeteria table. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said. “About the gum.”
“It’s okay,” Meredith said.
“So Becca’s, like, going to be an aunt.”
“That’s weird,” Meredith said.
“Like hoe, like hoe,” Jules said. “I’ll bet you fifty bucks Becca gets pregnant before she’s sixteen. Can you even imagine? We’ll be going off to college and she’ll, like, have a three-year-old.”
“A girl got pregnant in middle school four years ago,” Meredith said. “She was in Evan’s class. Her name was Kelly something. They were in eighth grade. She was our age.”
“That’s so gross,” Jules said. “Oh my god, I don’t even want to think about it. Tampons gross me out.”
“I know,” Meredith said.
Kristy sat down. “What’s gross?”
“Everything,” Jules said. “Life.”
“Did you see her wrist?” Kristy asked. She grabbed Meredith’s wrist and turned it for Jules to see. “Steven’s mark of ownership.”
“Don’t get pregnant,” Jules said. “Do not get pregnant.”
In English they were reading All Quiet on the Western Front, which Meredith understood was supposed to be very sad, but was mostly only very boring. When she told Evan she was reading it, he said, “Spoiler alert: he dies,” so now she actually liked the book more because at least there was that to look forward to—which sounded bad, but was only to say that at least she knew something was going to happen, that all the reading wasn’t just going to be for nothing.
Meredith hated gym more than any other class because she did not like changing with the other girls in the locker room. She would have changed in the bathroom stalls if she could—this was what she did in the summer, at the local pool—but that was not allowed in the school gym locker room. She had tried it once in sixth grade, she and Kristy both, and the gym teacher had come through and shouted at them that the bathroom stalls were not for dressing out, that they were big girls now and could change with everybody else.
Two years later Meredith still did not feel like a big girl. She and Kristy would locate the emptiest corner of the locker room and serve as each other’s shields—the changer’s body bent, the shielder’s eyes averted. Meredith regarded with a mixture of awe and disgust the girls who stood casually naked before their lockers. Of course Lisa and her pack were among this group, but there were others, too, people she actually liked. She did not understand how they could speak to each other with ease, as if their pubic hair was invisible, as if their breasts were no more to be hidden than their arms. They were like another species to her, obscene in their nonchalance.
The day ended with math. This was her wheelhouse, and thank god it came at the end of the day, in the nick of time, because math she got. When they did problems on the white board she wrote with confidence, sometimes even a cheereful, uncharacteristic arrogance. She was in Algebra II with only a handful of other students, working well ahead of the rest of the eighth grade. Today they had a test on rational functions. She had studied last night. She was well prepared. “Problem 1: Does the following table represent an inverse variation function? If so, find the missing value.” She was flying, acing it, sailing through the asymptotes and the x- and y-intercepts. With five minutes left in class and only one problem to go, her pencil point broke, and she stupidly had not brought a backup, so she had to get up and rush to the sharpener. Then the pencil got stuck in the sharpener and she had to wrestle with it and the class looked up at her, unhappily as one, and Mrs. Adolphson’s massive brow furrowed.
Meredith looked at her wrist and realized she had forgotten to check her “watch” at the appointed hour. She knew it was now well past 2:15. She looked at the clock on the wall. It was 2:40. In just a few minutes she would be headed home. Maybe she would stop at the Deli Barn on the way. Maybe she would reward herself with a large root beer. The promise of this gave her a burst of strength, and with one last violent, class-distracting grind, she was able to twist her battered pencil free.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Fall of Lisa Bellow includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Susan Perabo. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
A story of the intricate ties that bind families together, The Fall of Lisa Bellow starts with a harrowing near-kidnapping that leaves one family questioning how to move forward. Husband and wife dentists Mark and Claire retreat into old patterns, while their teenage children Evan and Meredith forge new identities as the community reels around them.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Claire’s experience of motherhood is very different from Colleen Bellow’s, both in attitude and in circumstance. Who do you think is the “better” mother, and why?
2. The dark underbelly of a “safe” suburban life is a through line in the book. In what ways does the Oliver family fit the “picture perfect” suburban mold? In what ways do they not?
3. Evan was once Meredith’s “best friend, confidante, the love of her life.” How does Meredith and Evan’s relationship change over the course of the novel? How had it changed even before Evan’s accident? How do you see it playing out after he goes away to college?
4. Discuss the symbolism behind the baseball going in a straight trajectory, such that Evan’s brain knows where it will be even though his eyes can’t perceive it. Were you sympathetic to his desire to play again?
5. Various members of the community cope with tragedy in widely varying ways, from the clique of girls making memorial bracelets “for charity” to the Deli Barn hiring new staff. What do you make of these various coping mechanisms? With which do you most relate? Do you have sympathy for the characters when they open up old wounds, or would you rather they have pretended everything was the same?
6. What significance does it hold that Claire’s mother has passed away? Why do you think the author chose to have a step-grandmother intervene? What purpose does she serve within the family? How does she fit in (or not)?
7. The characters spend quite a bit of time in their cars. How do cars (the Olivers’, the abductor’s, the Bellows’) serve the characters’ needs, both practically and emotionally?
8. Why do you think Meredith’s mind chose the bathroom as the safest place to visit Lisa? Is there another place in the apartment that you think would have been a better choice?
9. On page 333, Evan tells Meredith that he changed at thirteen and at fourteen, implying that all of his teen years have been fraught with change. At what age do you feel you became an adult? When did you stop feeling like a child and start to exhibit adult thinking? When you think back on your teenage years, were they more childlike or adultlike?
10. Each character in the novel has a distinct worldview and method of coping (think of Mark’s optimism and task orientation or Claire’s fatalism and avoidance). Which character did you most closely relate to in The Fall of Lisa Bellow? With which character did you struggle to connect?
11. When Meredith finds Mrs. Bellow’s yearbook, it calls out that she graduated the same year as the millennium. What has changed since the year 2000 that differentiates the lives of the young characters from those of the adults? What has remained constant from middle school as you knew it to the middle school experiences of today?
12. On page 281, Claire thinks of the moment she never picked up her child again and asks, “Would it be better to know that moment was that moment? Or was it better not knowing?” What do you think?
13. Claire makes a questionable decision to drive inebriated on Halloween night. Did you find her decision-making suspect? Criminal? Or merely happenstance, the kind of situation that could happen to anyone? What would you do in the same situation?
14. The nature of popularity is something the author explores quite a bit, both with the middle-school kids and with Claire and Mark’s newfound popularity as Evan becomes a star baseball player. Were you popular at school? What do you think makes someone popular in a closed social environment, like a school or a workplace?
15. Do you feel Lisa is judged too harshly by her peers (particularly by the “nice” girls)? How do you think both Meredith’s and Claire’s perception of Lisa changes by the end of the novel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Have everyone in the book club bring their old yearbooks and flip through them. What do you know about these people now? Discuss how yearbooks impacted you as a teenager or middle-school-age child, and how that pattern has been disrupted by Facebook and other social media. Write each other yearbook-style messages on pieces of paper.
2. The family sets their goals for the day every morning at breakfast. Go around the room at set your individual goals for the next day.
3. Read another book that deals with the aftermath of a tragedy to befall a young girl (some suggestions are The Lovely Bones, All the Missing Girls, or Pretty Is) and compare the two looks at trauma in the life of a teen girl.
A Conversation with Susan Perabo
What originally inspired you to write this novel? Is it based on a true kidnapping? Or did you start with another inciting incident?
This story began as a collision of two moments of imagination that occurred to me fifteen years apart. The first, a fleeting thought about how it would feel to be the one who wasn’t “chosen” by a kidnapper. The second, a parental-desire-gone-wild to exact revenge on elementary-school bullies. Those two moments collided, and Meredith and Claire were born. Neither existed until this collision; the moment that I realized they were mother and daughter was the moment their stories began to take shape.
Claire states early on in the novel quite explicitly that the “nice” girls are often just as cruel as the “bitches.” Do you agree?
I think any attempt to categorize people leads to—at best—emotional disconnection and—at worst—total disaster. So I reject the whole idea of “nice girls” and “bitches.” That said, of course these social distinctions exist, particularly in the teenage world. And it’s simply a fact that some children (some people, really) have a capacity for meanness that others do not. But to oversimplify—to not consider the subtleties of context and the complexities of motivation—serves only to deepen the divide.
Meredith’s early imaginings of Lisa’s captivity include a little dog named Annie. What did the dog symbolize to you? What made you use that imagery to help Meredith work through the danger that befell Lisa?
In order to stave off an immediate and complete emotional collapse, it is essential for Meredith to create something to comfort Lisa once Meredith imagines her in the kidnapper’s apartment. Meredith imagines a cute little dog because that is the first cliché that leaps to her mind: A girl in a terrifying position, put a dog on her lap, suddenly the image is not so terrifying. Meredith creates the dog to keep herself sane and then continues to use the dog to comfort Lisa (and thus herself) even in the most horrible imagined circumstances (for instance, the possibility that Lisa is being raped). This allows Meredith’s emotional collapse to be delayed. It’s only when she realizes that she’s invented the dog that she must insert herself into the narrative. She, essentially, replaces the dog as the source of Lisa’s comfort—and in doing so immerses herself completely in the imaginary world.
Meredith’s POV is quite distinct from Claire’s. How did you capture the voice of an adolescent girl, a notoriously tricky subject? What was the hardest part of keeping the two women’s voices distinct?
The only tricky part of telling the story from both perspectives was figuring out how to divide the scenes more or less equally between them—like who “got” which scene. Keeping the perspectives distinct was never an issue. Both characters were so thoroughly developed in my head that, when I came to the end of each chapter, it was honestly as if the incoming POV would shove the outgoing POV off the desk chair and sit down and go to it. I never mixed them up. It would have been like mixing up two actual people.
On page 67, Meredith thinks, “She always knew she and Evan would excel at peril, given the chance.” It seems like a common thought for a kid, especially one raised on Hardy Boys or Boxcar Children books. Do you think that Meredith and Evan have excelled at peril? Why did you choose to have both of the teens undergo trauma?
I think every kid has a desire to face pretend “Hardy Boys” peril, especially with another kid—a sibling or a friend. Fun fact: the original title of this book was “Peril.” That’s how important the idea of it was for me. Not a great title, but a central theme. I think it’s almost impossible to anticipate peril. It can come in any form, in any place (a baseball field, a sandwich shop), out of nowhere. But more important than that is the idea that the greatest peril we all face is the inability to communicate with one another and an unwillingness to put aside our own needs and really take care of each other. This is what Claire finally grasps at the end of the novel—that her children’s greatest peril was not caused by a kidnapper or a foul ball, but rather by her own fear and failings as their mother.
What was the inspiration for Meredith’s skill at mathematics and the ways she uses concentrating on math to cope with reality?
I wanted Meredith to be good at something, and I wanted her to have a safe zone in that terrifying moment at the Deli Barn. It made sense that the thing she was most confident about would manifest as that safe zone.
How did you imagine the concept of starting the kidnapping narrative again midway through the book? Was it immediately apparent to you, while writing, that Meredith was imagining Lisa Bellow in the bathroom? Or did you believe that perhaps the previous chapters had all been wishful thinking and Meredith had never returned from the Deli Barn?
I knew when I started writing the novel that there would be a separate, imagined story line in which Meredith wrote herself into the kidnapping narrative. I didn’t know precisely how it would work structurally, nor how much of it there would be; I just trusted that I would know the right time, psychologically, for Meredith to take solace in that narrative. And I did. And even though I knew it was happening in Meredith’s imagination, I believed it as “truth” while I was writing it (just as I believe all my fiction as truth while writing it). For that reason, I found the scenes between Meredith and Lisa to be among the most compelling scenes in the book—for me as the writer. I was constructing a way for Meredith to process what had happened to her and to Lisa, and I was genuinely moved by watching that process unfold. Also I got to know Lisa in those scenes—or rather I got to know Meredith’s version of Lisa, which in the end is the most complete version we have of her, even though it’s not “real.”
Themes of escape run throughout the novel: Claire’s temptation to escape the life she chose with Mark, Evan’s looming escape to college, even Claire’s willingness to take on the shift at Hillsboro rather than spend additional time with her father and stepmother. Why do you think you chose to focus on the eagerness of people to leave the everyday behind?
I think our desire to escape our own circumstances is pretty constant. Sometimes that desire is rooted in dissatisfaction and sometimes in curiosity. Sometimes escape is really good for us (reading, for instance) and sometimes it’s really not (drinking too much, having an affair, etc). I think we are almost always imagining a better place, even when we are happy with the place we’re in. I think that’s just the human condition. Technology makes escape too easy, but even that ease can’t compete with the escape into imagination. At one point Meredith says Lisa is around the corner of every thought. That’s what saves her, but it’s also what threatens to take her out of her real life, and her real relationships, completely.
Meredith figures that she wasn’t abducted because the kidnapper chose to take the prettier one. This is a logical, if sad, line of thought for a young girl. What about that darker concept—the inadequacy of not being chosen for an objectively horrible experience—felt necessary to you to explore?
It’s precisely that bizarre juxtaposition of emotions that drew me to that moment to begin with. Once I had the thought—how would it feel to not be chosen?—I couldn’t shake it. How wonderful! But how humiliating! When Meredith thinks about all the things Lisa did, over years, in the name of middle-school popularity, unwittingly making herself more desirable for that decisive moment, it’s almost unbearable.
A major turning point for Claire as a mother is when Evan comes home from school subdued and she feels powerless to protect her children from the dangers they might encounter in the world, despite her best efforts. Do you agree with her assessment that we can’t protect children from the world?
Yes. But, again, I think we do have the power to protect them from the worst of ourselves.
When the books ends, the characters haven’t really received closure as to what happened after Lisa was abducted—i.e., the kidnapper is never caught, the police never find a body. Why did you choose to leave unilluminated the outcome of Lisa’s kidnapping?
The book is not about Lisa. The book is about Meredith and Claire; thus, the resolution belongs to them. Also, realistically, sometimes there is simply no resolution to a tragic event. The people impacted must simply find a way to move on, despite this. I recognize the ending might leave some readers unsatisfied, but I felt offering an answer in the end would have been dishonest. I wanted the reader to draw her own conclusions, as the characters do.