An insightful and sometimes uncanny story about relationships, trauma, and the darkest corners of our secret selves.
(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)
There were still little green ribbons covering Lisa’s locker, but every morning some would have fallen down overnight, scattered like tiny leaves, and she would pick them up and toss them into the bottom of her own locker. How long would they let that locker, 64C, sit there, unused? How long did missing-person ribbons stay up? Was there an expiration date, some point where they officially became irrelevant, a day when the fall of Lisa Bellow became the winter of someone else, as Evan had predicted from the start?
“You’re popular,” Jules said. “I can’t believe it. Of all of us, I didn’t think it would be you first.”
Maybe they were all bitches, Claire thought. Maybe that was all there was to be in eighth grade. Maybe you didn’t have any choice. Maybe your only choice was figuring out what kind of bitch you wanted to be.
One crisp October afternoon, thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver stops by the Deli Barn on the way home from school, to treat herself to a root beer soda for a job well done on her algebra test. Ahead of her in line stands her arch nemesis, Parkway North Middle School’s resident Mean Girl, Lisa Bellow. Her presence so unnerves Meredith that she almost turned tail and ran – that is, until Lisa caught her eye through the door. She couldn’t show Lisa any weakness, not with so much at stake.
As the sandwich farmer* is taking Lisa’s order (overly complicated, natch), a masked man strides in and robs the cashier at gunpoint. He forces Meredith and Lisa to lay down on the sticky floor of the restaurant while he walks the cashier to the back of the store, in search of a safe that doesn’t exist. When he comes back – alone – he forces Lisa to her feet and leaves with her. Traumatized, Meredith stays on the floor for another eleven minutes (“eleven glorious minutes”), until another customer walks in and find her. Even then, it takes a group of paramedics and “a needle full of Thorazine to peel her from her cherished spot.”
The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a strange and wonderful book. It’s about how Meredith copes with the trauma of the robbery and kidnapping, yes; but hers is not the only trauma we bear witness to. Meredith’s mother, Claire; her seventeen-year-old brother Ethan; Lisa’s mother Colleen; and Lisa’s friends Becca, Abby, and Amanda – all of them are working through their own “stuff,” not all of it related to Lisa’s disappearance. Yet the ripples of her kidnapping and likely murder reverberate through all their lives.
Above all else, though, this is a story about relationships: between parents and children; friends and enemies; in-groups and out-groups. Perabo’s writing is keen and insightful, often times cuttingly so: I found that both the child and the adult in me could relate to Meredith and Claire’s inner monologues like whoah. When Meredith laments that
It had been all downhill since fifth grade. Sometimes she looked back on that golden year and felt a pang of nostalgia so keenly that she thought she might actually die.
my stomach actually twisted in sympathy and recognition, albeit for slightly different reasons. (My school district’s lines were redrawn in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, and I had to finish out my elementary education at a different school than my friends. I also got glasses, braces, and my period that year. It was literal hell, and nothing was the same after.)
Perabo isn’t afraid to explore the darker, uglier corners of our secret selves, and the result is often uncomfortable – but also deeply satisfying. When Claire admitted to Mark that she deliberately hurt Evan’s bully when she found him sitting in her chair – “Rewind, she thought. Rewind. She actually almost prayed this word: rewind.” – I nearly squealed with shared horror and regret. Like, the panic was palpable, a thing I could hold in my hand and caress.
While the first half of the story feels like a contemporary, firmly rooted in reality, there’s a weird, M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist halfway through that cleaves the story in two. You’re left trying to distinguish reality from fantasy. Normally, this wondering can come to dominate a story (this isn’t a complaint, just an observation), yet this isn’t the case with The Fall of Lisa Bellow: Perabo’s writing is so masterful that you still see the forest for the trees. It’s the little details, not to mention the painfully believable dialogue, that make this story sing – and scream.
That said, I wasn’t completely satisfied with the resolution, which felt a little rushed and … maybe a bit of a bait and switch?
Nevertheless, I’d definitely read it again, if given a do-over: Perabo’s psychological insights are 110% worth it.
* I love this term so much, I just had to sneak it into the review. No regrets.
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Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Meredith and her arch nemesis, Lisa Bellow, are waiting in line at the Chestnut Street Deli Barn when a masked gunman robs the place. He knocks the “sandwich farmer” out cold, makes Meredith and Lisa lay face down on the floor, and then abducts Lisa. In the aftermath of the incident, Meredith suffers from PTSD.
One of the detectives investigating the kidnapping, Detective Waller, is a black woman.
Mr. Fulton, the school custodian who found Meredith lying on the floor of the Deli Barn eleven minutes after the robbery, is also black. Some of the kids spread racist rumors about him:
She didn’t know anything about him except that he was black, and someone, probably one of Lisa Bellow’s group, had started a rumor that he had spent twenty years in prison for murder. Of course this rumor made the rounds about every single black male who worked at the school, including the principal.
Meredith’s older brother Evan, a high school senior, lost vision in one eye after taking a foul ball to the face during practice. The accident shattered his dreams of becoming a pro baseball player and sent him spiraling into depression. He now wears glasses; one lens is clear and there to protect his one remaining eye, the other tinted to hide his cloudy, injured, and mostly unseeing eye. He suffers from migraines and takes pills for the pain.
Becca Nichols’s sixteen-year-old sister is pregnant. (Becca is one of Meredith’s classmates and part of Lisa’s clique.)
Claire’s parents had her later in life; her father may or may not have been an alcoholic, and her mom sometimes suffered from periods of depression. Her mom died of cancer when Claire was twenty-seven. (Claire is Meredith’s mother.)
Lisa’s mom Colleen is a working-class single mom.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a