Memoirist Cassandra Fallows has picked her life dry en route to literary success.
The book club darling has bared the details of her parents' divorce in her first book and her two failed marriages in her second book.
WILLIAM MORROW ($24.99)
Flushed with success, she writes a book of fiction, which bombs.
Stick to autobiography, her agent tells her.
"But the problem was she had run out of life," writes author Laura Lippman of the main character in her captivating new book, "Life Sentences."
Cassandra's quandary is solved when she just happens to hear a news report about a baby's disappearance that references an earlier case of Calliope "Callie" Jenkins, a Baltimore mother jailed for seven years on contempt charges for refusing to speak about her son's disappearance.
The 50-year-old Cassandra went to elementary school with Callie back in the day.
Cassandra pounces on that tiny thread as a basis for a nonfiction book, plunging into her past, kicking up old grudges with her Baltimore elementary school classmates, tracking down the unsolved mystery of Callie and her baby.
In Lippman's hands, this is no ordinary mystery. Like her previous best-selling mystery, "What the Dead Know," this is a beautifully crafted psychological thriller with well-drawn characters.
Cassandra is a complex protagonist, overbearing, self-centered and promiscuous but still oddly likable. We all know people like her who are the center of their own dramas.
Lippman takes on the tricky question of racial tension with a deft touch. In fact, Cassandra watched her own father abandon her mother for a beautiful younger African-American woman.
Race is an important equation in her elementary school years. Cassandra, who is white, befriends three popular African-American girls -- the socially connected and gracious Donna, the outspoken Tisha and the fun-loving and wild Fatima.
When the middle-aged Cassandra barges back into their lives, she finds out they have issues with her memories of their youth in her book, and they are resistant to letting her drag them into the drama of another book. As Tisha tells her, "Maybe we're all just done being supporting players in the Cassandra Fallows show, starring Cassandra Fallows as Cassandra Fallows."
Callie is the quiet girl on the sidelines of the group, and finding out what happened to her keeps the pages turning.
But the real drama is in the subtle undercurrents and shifting allegiances among Cassandra and her three childhood friends.
Lippman writes with grace about the unreliability of memory, the falsehoods behind family histories and the human capacity for self delusion as Cassandra finally takes an honest look at her past.
With "Life Sentences," Lippman has crafted another gem.
Cristina Rouvalis is a former Post-Gazette reporter.