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Book review: The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo

Susan Perabo.

This tale of a teenage abduction struggles with the clichés it seeks to overturn.

Meredith Oliver is a nice, normal girl. She attends middle school, where she’s excluded from the company of the popular, bitchy, mean girls. She’s not exceptional at anything “except maybe catching popcorn or M&Ms in her mouth” and “picking things up off the bottom of the swimming pool with her toes”. There’s hope, though, since she’s “likely in the top 5% of American 13-year-old girls at math”. She is a little overweight and is cruelly mocked for this by one of the popular girls, Lisa Bellow. When she glances into Lisa’s locker and sees a photograph of her “tan” and “muscular” boyfriend – “every finger and toe was so beautiful” – Lisa treats her with hot, mean scorn: “She slammed the locker shut and twirled away, her golden hair a perfectly silky wave of dismissal.”

Meredith’s parents are dentists, and her brother Evan is a really nice kid, who has a great relationship with his younger sister. This is a good, normal American family, with strong roots. Can they withstand the “curveballs” life throws at them? When things go terribly wrong, will they find their way to healing?

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is described on its cover as “achingly beautiful”. In many ways achingly trite, it gives the impression, at times, of labouring under the weight of the clichés it’s seeking to overturn.

Already badly affected by the serious accident that has ended Evan’s baseball career, the family must now withstand a horror: when Meredith and Lisa Bellow enter a deli together by chance, the shop is robbed and Lisa is abducted. Meredith seems at first to be coping, but the strain starts to show, as she retreats into a compensatory fantasy, and her family is unable to reach her.

Despite assurances from her “useless” therapist, Dr Moon, that Meredith will “process” in her own time, her mother, Claire, is anxious and unnerved. She has uncharitable thoughts about her husband, gets drunk before driving to collect Meredith from a party and wonders what it’s all for. Meredith, meanwhile, is living an eerie kind of dual existence as she struggles to cope with the nightmare of the unknown: what is happening to Lisa now?

Some asides are genuinely savage and shocking: “Everyone knew that men thought about sex all the time … So Meredith wasn’t going to be a baby about it and try to pretend Lisa Bellow wasn’t getting raped.” The fact that one part of Meredith is ambivalent about Lisa’s fate is sensitively and quite bravely explored – Lisa was, after all, such a “bitch”. And the treatment of Meredith’s survivor guilt fantasy is genuinely original, leaving uncertainty at first about what’s really going on.

The novel develops into an account of imaginative reconciliation, the action operating on two levels: in Meredith’s fractured mind and in her external day-to-day life. There are no easy answers, and yet, throughout, there’s the sense that the ideal of the American family will prevail: there will be processing, there will be a new therapist who’s not useless, there will be Mom and Dad in the van, heading off to the grandparents, as Meredith envisages it: “The entrance ramp, the van full, the day, the night, the road, the miles, the parents, the children, the journey.” The family restored, achingly predictable.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow, by Susan Perabo (Simon & Schuster, $35)

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


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