Life Sentences, by Laura Lippman

Cassandra’s two memoirs have been bestsellers, but her recent novel is not doing so well. While she’s trying to decide what her next project should be, she hears a reference on the news to an old murder case involving a former classmate of hers and decides to use it as the core of a memoir describing the very different paths she and her school friends have followed.

When I was writing my memoir, I not only read many memoirs and books about writing memoirs, I spent a lot of time pondering the ethics involved. I couldn’t tell my story without mentioning other people, and I debated about what sort of rights I had to tell someone else’s story. Knowing how faulty memory and perspective may be, I worried about getting things wrong. While it’s generally understood that a memoir is one person’s view of what happened, I wanted to be as accurate as possible. I didn’t want to be one of those memoirists who take liberties with the truth, but I did want to include dialogue and other dramatic devices. In the end, I did my best and trusted the emotional truth to compensate for any errors. The danger, of course, in revealing one’s emotional truths is that they are not always pretty.

Some people criticised Cassandra’s first memoir, which told her father’s love story, how he fell in love with a young Black woman whom he rescued during the riots in Baltimore following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. During the rescue, he was badly beaten and taken to the hospital, leaving ten-year-old Cassandra bereft, waiting for him to bring her birthday cake home. Some months afterwards he left Cassandra and her mother to live with and then marry Annie, braving the censure of friends and colleagues alike, censure which was not so much for the divorce but for the bi-racial marriage.

Some of her readers were offended by Cassandra’s complaining about the ruin of her birthday party because it seemed so petty compared to the horror of King’s death. I, too, have been offended by novels that co-opt tragedies of the Civil Rights Movement to add ready-made drama to the relatively trivial problems of some White girl or boy. Similarly, I resent books that use the attacks on the World Trade Center to heighten the drama of a pet dog dying or the silly problems of a bunch of spoiled yuppies.

So I was not disposed to like Cassandra very much, and the description of her subsequent book and other actions didn’t appeal to me much either. Eventually, however, she did begin to grow on me. Cassandra doesn’t flinch from the truth. Instead of striking back when criticised, she looks for where she may be in the wrong. I like that. As she returns to Baltimore and reconnects with her former friends, she learns some home truths about herself.

Cassandra contacts the three women who were her close friends in elementary school, chosen on the first day not because they were Black but because they seemed self-confident and had already staked a claim on the best-placed quartet of desks. She had attended a different junior high and when they met up again in high school, somehow she was no longer part of their group.

There are many references to heroes—Cassandra’s father is a Classics professor—but this is really a book about race. I sometimes think pretty much everything in Baltimore is really about race. Kudos to Lippman for taking on issues so hard to explore without giving offense and impossible, in the end, to see from both sides. To me, the heart of the book is Cassandra’s inability, no matter how close she may have been to her three friends, to understand what life was like for them. Lippman adroitly expands this theme beyond race, adding a resonance that lingers long after I’ve set the book down.

I believe that what Lippman does here represents the best of what fiction is capable of. Yes, fiction can be entertaining and escapist, but where it really shines is when it opens our minds and our hearts and enables us to see the world from within someone else’s skin. Undertaking this journey is the most honorable motivation for our becoming writers and readers and thus makes heroes of us all.

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