Monday, August 25, 2008

"The Likeness," and Weird Friendships

I just finished Tana French's follow-up to the wonderful In The Woods, which instantly became one of my favorite crime novels ever when I read it a couple of weeks ago. In my review of that book on this site, though, I failed to mention a few elements which suddenly cast sharp shadows in the light of the new book, The Likeness. The previous book is a first-person narration, from the point of view of Rob Ryan, a Irish homicide detective; a significant part of the book elaborates upon his unconventional friendship with his partner, Cassie Maddox (the first-person narrator of The Likeness).

Ryan and Maddox, in that first book, have a platonic relationship of unusual intimacy. Ryan is always sleeping over on Maddox's couch; they know everything about each other, and clearly find one another attractive. Everyone assumes they are an item, and Ryan almost never mentions any feelings for another woman--until the novel's last third, where, blinded by his attraction to a suspect, he makes a huge mistake that blows the case. He also blows the friendship, by sleeping with Maddox, then cruelly shunning her friendship.

In the new book, Ryan does not appear. But Maddox mentions their night together. I've brought the book back to the library already, I'm afraid, but she says something like "He wanted to sleep with me; I let him." It's more complicated than that, of course, and part of French's appeal is her skill at unreliable narration. Ryan and Maddox are onto themselves, but not quite as much as they think.

In The Likeness, we have a bizarre premise: back when Maddox was an undercover cop, she and her supervisor invented a girl named Lexie Madison for Maddox to inhabit, in order to crack a college drug ring. Now Maddox is off the homicide squad and is working domestic violence, and she gets a call from her boyfriend, another homicide cop: come to a crime scene immediately, there's something you have to see. The something turns out to be a young woman, dead in an abandoned cottage: she looks identical to Maddox, and her ID says Lexie Madison.

If that seems implausible, what happens next is even more so: Maddox goes back undercover as the dead girl, moving in with the girl's four housemates, who have been told she wasn't dead of her stab wound, but merely in a coma. She is supposed to infiltrate their web of friendships in order to discover who really killed Lexie Madison--and who this Lexie Madison really was.

Well. Let me say right off that I loved this book, and found it every bit as absorbing as its predecessor. But the premise isn't merely hard to believe: it's impossible to believe. It simply couldn't, wouldn't ever happen. If this is likely to bother you, don't read it, because it's really the one flaw in an otherwise spectacular, and superbly written, crime novel.

The interest here isn't the plot, though. It's the friendships. Lexie's housemates are a group of disaffected graduate students who co-own a decrepit mansion and spend every single second of their time together. One's a girl, and one is gay, but they aren't lovers, and they don't seem to have lovers outside the group, either, or even other friends. They have a "no pasts" rule--any conversational references to their lives before they met are strictly forbidden. They cook meals together, and in the evenings they sit around the parlor reading and playing cards. None of them owns a computer or television. They're inveterate weirdos, in other words--and Maddox, who had to drop out of college ten years before when a rumormongering psychopath destroyed her social life, falls for them in a big way. The real story of this book is the story of Maddox going native, actually coming to love this quartet of suspects, and trying to convince herself it's all part of the job. In the end, she cracks the case, but that isn't the only thing that cracks, and the happy ending with boyfriend Sam is intentionally undercut by a minor chord.

Anyway, after In The Woods, I wouldn't have identified Weird Friendships as French's subject. But perhaps it is. It's a good one, too, as I can't think of many other books that embrace it so completely. Maybe The Haunting of Hill House, or some of Ruth Rendell's nonseries thrillers. I'm also surprised we don't see it more often--after all, how many relationships fall neatly into our commonest categories for them? How many relationships are completely nonweird? Not many. This is my Topic Of The Week, and I'm going to write a story about it immediately.


E. said...

Yay, yay! I'm so glad you dig French! I think she's brilliant, and inspiring, and the fact that her novels are the impetus for a brand new JRL story makes me want to open a bookstore and do nothing all day but make recommendations. (That's all Rhian does, right? Right?)

Thanks for the review; I'm buying her new one immediately.


Anonymous said...

I've got to come up with a story about New Jersey for an anthology edited by another W6 reader...and it's going to be a crime story involving a weird friendship...

lowenkopf said...

By coincidene, I just filed a 1250-word review on "The Likeness." Splendid work, using in narrative and action French' acting skills. Interesting that so much good stuff in mystery/supense comes from UK, Scotland, Ireland, from Kate Atkinson, Denise Mina, and now Tana French. Must be something in the ale.