Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Likeness, by Tana French

The Likeness, Tana French's sequel to her blockbuster first novel, Into the Woods, has mostly been reviewed positively, but often with some reservations. It is, like its predecessor, a long book for a crime novel (over 450 pages), and it's based on a central conceit that has to be (for some readers, with difficulty) swallowed whole for the book to be appreciated. The first person narrator, Detective Cassie Maddox, moves the story along slowly, mostly in narrative rather than dialogue (though there's plenty of talking, aimed more at character development than plot). The premise is that a dead woman resembles Cassie so much that she's asked to go undercover to impersonate the victim, to live in a group house with her four best friends, literature students at Trinity College in Dublin. The leap of faith required by the reader is that this impersonation is even remotely possible--although French makes her ability to sustain her relationship with those friends somewhat more believable than her ability to maintain the victim's teaching and research duties at Trinity. Cassie's narrative voice and her character are interesting, and a novel featuring her as the central character was something I have been looking forward to since reading Into the Woods last year. But I have to admit I was disappointed. My problem is that the characters seem shallow and immature, friends clinging together in a tight community rather like characters in young-adult fiction (a band of outsiders rebelling against the "real world" of their parents. The adolescent quality of the friendship is captured in a quote from one of the circle, speaking to the others: ""We used to tell one another everything…Didn't we? Or is that simply the way I remember it? The five of us against the world, and no secrets, ever." The Likeness is essentially a coming of age story, but French's Cassie is a bit old for the role. And Cassie makes some difficult-to-swallow errors of professional judgment: concealing key facts or evidence at several points for no readily discernible reason. A couple of reviewers have related French’s novel to Donna Tartt's The Secret History, because of both novels' focus on tightly wound (in more ways than one) circles of academic youths (as well as their mostly banal academ-esque conversations). The comparison with Tartt is an apt, and to me not positive, one. But I did keep reading, a testament to the French's writing skills, though I can't resist quoting a line from the novel that is something less than skillful: "'Where have you been?' Daniel hissed." Maybe I'm just being picky, but how do you hiss the line "Where have you been?" If anyone thinks I'm being too hard on The Likeness, please let me know--meanwhile, I'm turning with a sigh of relief to Allan Guthrie's Savage Night, which I picked up at the same time as The Likeness.


Peter Rozovsky said...

With respect to that hard-to-swallow central conceit, it sounds to me as if Tana French, with her background in theater, is fantasizing an acting tour de force.
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

Glenn Harper said...

I think you're right, Peter--her theater background is discernible, perhaps, in the dialogue as well as the extreme quality of the premise.

Anonymous said...

Most of the points you make have some merit,and the rational part of my mind sees the faults,but evidently they did not impinge on my enjoyment,because I liked it very much.
I think the immaturity of the characters is quite believable, considering how stunted their emotional life had been.
Regarding "Hissed" - it is used so frequently in absence of sibilants nowadays it makes you wonder if we are witnessing a shift in meaning,and soon not even the Dictionaries will bother.
You didn't like "The Secret History"?
I ask because it's in my huge used books tbr pile,along with the Glausers.


Glenn Harper said...

Marco: I guess what my review of The Likeness reveals is that I did not, in fact, like The Secret History--but perhaps also that readers who did enjoy The Secret History may be the proper audience for The Likeness (and vice versa). I just did not have patience with the stunted (as you suggest) emotional lives of the immature characters. Regarding my snide comment about the line that was "hissed" in The Likeness, I'm an editor by profession, and I guess I just can't help critiquing some casual distortions of the language, even commonly used ones (I still cringe at the extremely common misuse of the word "hopefully," a battle I've surely lost a long time ago).

Tanja said...

I read The Secret History a long time ago and have reread it several times since. I just finished The Likeness, and I did indeed like it, but I thought the similarities between the two books were almost eerie. The characters of the four students, the setting, the crime, the drinking, the emotions, the way the characters talk... It's very, very similar.

Glenn Harper said...

Tanja: Thanks for your comment--it's interesting to hear from someone who knows Secret History better than I do (and someone who's read it more recently) that the similarities are so extensive. I guess that's all the more reason that someone who likes (or dislikes) the one is likely to like (or dislike) the other.