When Meredith Oliver is the lucky girl left behind after a robber abducts her eighth grade classmate Lisa Bellow, she is not the only one traumatized. The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo, looks at the aftereffects of trauma on Meredith and her family. She is the lucky one. Lisa Bellow is gone and her mother, Coleen, and her school friends are also struggling with their grief. The primary focus, though, is on Meredith and her mother Claire.
It’s not that the Oliver family didn’t have enough to deal with. Earlier that year, Evan, Meredith’s beloved older brother was blinded in one eye by an errant baseball, a simple accident with no one to blame. Evan did not just lose vision in one eye, he lost his possible baseball career, scholarships to college and the easy athletic primacy he enjoyed. Essentially, he lost the identity he had known and was struggling to find a new one for himself.
Claire and Mark Oliver seem to have the perfect marriage, so long as you don’t examine it closely. But trauma makes you examine everything and the flaws that were bearable become less so. Meanwhile, Meredith is drawn to Lisa’s circle of friends, mean girls who had no time for her before. She is also talking to Lisa. She knows what happened and is happening to Lisa with the kidnapper, that Lisa is being comforted by a little dog named Annie, that Lisa is being raped though it’s happening out of Meredith’s sight, she is also seeing what would happen if the kidnapper had chosen both of them. We know and Meredith’s parents know she needs help, but what kind and how?
The Fall of Lisa Bellow is an effective family drama, an exploration of the silences and absences of family life, the sudden chasms that erupt between people who love each other. It is also a book about family love, deep and abiding, even violent and superhuman. Claire loves her children fiercely, even when they are fighting her. There is a shocking scene where she exacts petty revenge against a child who bullies her son–and she’s not sorry. She will never be sorry. She understands Coleen Bellow’s anger and pain, even if she feels glad it’s not her pain.
This is a compulsive read that takes us from the first day of school until Christmas vacation, the Fall of Lisa Bellow, the Fall that fractures a family and offers hope that they will knit back together. When Perabo writes about the compulsive power of maternal love, she is at her most poetic and lyrical. This is the best writing in the book.
There is a troublesome suggestion when Meredith is imagining that the abductor has sex with Lisa, that it isn’t exactly rape, defining rape as someone jumping out of the bushes and tearing your clothes off. I don’t know how being abducted at gunpoint differs from jumping out of a bush, but Meredith is in eighth grade and clearly ill-informed about sex and rape and the difference between them. She thinks it must be unpleasant but not horrible. I am sure the author knows better, that sex and rape are not on the same spectrum, that rape is violence–about power, not sex. However, this never gets corrected. It would be one thing if there is any corrective to this idea, but there is not. Meredith is young, so are her friends, and she’s not talking to her family.
I would not recommend this book to young people without some serious discussion of this fallacy because it really sucks. The book is interesting and I cared about the people, but just because an eighth grade girl is likely to have internalized rape culture to the degree that she thinks an adult kidnapper forcing an eighth-grader to have sex is not exactly rape does not mean it should stand without correction. Yes, it’s very likely girls that age may think that. Someone needs to set it straight in the book. Uncorrected, uncontradicted, it’s dangerous and irresponsible.
The Fall of Lisa Bellow will be released March 14th. I was provided an e-galley for review by the publisher through NetGalley.