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 inside her, and the wind the blew through that hole….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.
On a September day punctuated only by an Algebra test, a broken pencil, and not enough time to finish graphing the asymptotes, eighth-grader Meredith suddenly finds herself on the floor of a local restaurant as a robbery becomes a kidnapping and Meredith is the one left behind. The Fall of Lisa Bellow is the story of what happens next for Meredith and her family as they come to terms with Meredith’s being left behind while still having to move forward.
I remember the first time I watched Gilmore Girls, I identified, unquestioningly, with Rory. Many years later, re-watching it before the recent revival, I realized at some point I was far closer in age to Lorelai in the series, and, while I remembered feeling the way Rory did at times, Lorelai’s story lines were suddenly more relevant.
In some ways, my experience with The Fall of Lisa Bellow was similar—I felt the ache of middle school injustice and cliques and could remember how it felt to be where Meredith is (awful…it mostly felt awful), but I identified as strongly with her mother Claire as I did Meredith. I’m in the sweet spot of being able to see myself in both major characters.
In Meredith, I remember the feeling of not fitting in—not entirely sure what it was about me that made me different, just knowing that I wasn’t popular or, frankly, well-liked. Like Meredith, I missed the memo about the Titanic iceberg that is middle school and spent the rest of the time feeling like I was catching up. And yet, there is a point where we see Meredith from her mother’s eyes, talking about the mean girls with her friends. And in that moment, Meredith is one the nice-girls-become-mean in the tearing down of other girls. I see this so much in myself in hindsight. I was one of the nice girls but I was not nice. I was not kind. In seeing this in Meredith, I see this in eighth grade me. It made me feel gentler toward Meredith, knowing we shared this flaw that neither of us could or would see until we were adults, removed from thirteen by enough distance to see the landscape behind.
In the alternating chapters with Meredith’s mother, I could see parts of Claire’s parenting that felt true to me. I’m not a parent but I could see where many of the mistakes she made could easily be my mistakes in the future. The earliest glimpse of Claire’s parenting comes as she examines a patient who made fun of her first-grade son, calling him a “porker.” As an adult, Claire has power, but as a dentist, Claire welds more power than she should—and in a moment of decision deliberately inflicts just a bit of pain on her son’s bully. There’s something shockingly human in the description of this incident. Though the book is written in third person it reads like a confession, but a confession from someone who isn’t sure she’s sorry. She knows she should be, but that’s as close to remorse as she’s been able to come in the ten years since.
For Claire, the problems are now too big for dental retribution. Six months before the book opens, her son Evan catches a line drive foul ball in the eye, destroying his sight and his dreams for a baseball career. Now, with Meredith, not taken but gone somewhere Claire can’t understand, Claire has to fully accept that can’t protect her children and there isn’t always a physical monster she can bring to tears with her sterile tools.
Though there is nothing on paper that should make me identify particularly well with either of these characters, the highlight of The Fall of Lisa Bellow for me was Meredith and Claire, as well as the minor characters of the father Mark and son Evan—in their struggle through grief and loss and almost-loss and guilt for the grief—they make choices that can’t make sense because none of those emotions set the foundation for rational thinking. And yet, I can see the nonsensical choices they each made and see, exactly, how I too would wind up in a stranger’s bathtub, drunk on my own front lawn, unexpectedly in a seat at the popular kid’s table for a fleeting moment. It is a strength of Perabo’s that though I had little to nothing outwardly in common with her characters, I identified with them so deeply as I read.
I read a book several years ago about “ambiguous loss,” a phrase made mainstream by Pauline Boss. Ambiguous losses aren’t solid, they’re like a family whose loved one has Alzheimer’s—there’s a death with a living body still walking around, so how do they mourn this non-loss? It’s a loss of expectation in some ways, but deeper than that. It’s not a loss you can see; it’s not something that prompt the neighbors to pull out the casserole dishes and fill your freezer. Though what Meredith experienced isn’t truly an ambiguous loss—Lisa is gone and Meredith is not—the way Meredith processed what happened—that she is still here reminded me in some ways of ambiguous loss. We all grieve experiences differently, even if what would seem to be the expected emotion isn’t grief. It is in the processing of her experience and the loss of Lisa that Meredith begins to literally see Lisa, to imagine what is happening to her. How Meredith comes to terms with her own trauma, the “lesser” trauma of that day, is simultaneously completely irrational and completely identifiable. Through the ordeal and later, she fixates on a problem she ran out of time to solve in math class—she latches onto the rational problem with a finite solution that she can still solve.
For Claire, the immediate thought is that Meredith is still here—what does she or her family have to grieve? And yet, there is the almost-grief, the difference of eeny-meeny-miney-mo landing on your daughter rather than the other one in the restaurant.
After Lisa is taken within the first few chapters of the book, the rest is how Meredith comes to term with Lisa—a classmate who wasn’t a friend but, in that short moment, was as they both lay on the floor of the Deli Barn. How Claire mourns the loss of her daughter’s innocence while simultaneously struggling with the idea that she, as the parent who didn’t lose a child, shouldn’t be mourning at all.
Because I can’t not-comment on the writing
The Fall of Lisa Bellow stuck with me more than most books I’ve read recently—the larger themes had more poignancy than the other books I’ve read this summer. In this way, while the little details were the high point of the other books, here they were the matting surrounding the larger work—the work was better for the professional matting and framing job, but the work stood on its own.
The themes carried you, swimming in almost-grief and almost-guilt masquerading down the halls of eighth grade, while the word choice and details were the individual steps that got you from one end of the hall to the other. The writing didn’t smother the theme, it wasn’t over the top but it wasn’t so simplistic that it detracted. There were paragraphs to re-read for the way the characters made you feel and others to re-read for the word choice. The Fall of Lisa Bellow was balanced in a way most books rarely are.
This is a book that drew some strong reactions in the MMD book club—some of us loved it, but I think we may have been in the slight minority. The action happens in the left over parts with the left behind people. It doesn’t move quickly and some of the choices the characters make just aren’t rational—if you’re not in a place where you’re also inhabiting those characters with Perabo, then I can see how those choices, those words, that character’s tone would drive you to pull out your eyelashes waiting for something to happen. Despite the kidnapping plot, this is not a mystery/thriller. The focus is never on the girl who was taken but the girl who was left.
With that said, I loved this book and devoured it in days. If you enjoy well written, traditional literary fiction and character-driven books, The Fall of Lisa Bellow was a highlight of my summer reading and I highly recommend it. This is another book I’ll be acquiring my own copy of for my shelves to lend and re-read in the future.
Published: March 14, 2017 by Simon & Schuster (@simonandschuster)
Author: Susan Perabo
Date read: June 12, 2017
Rating: 4 ½ Stars