The Fall of Lisa Bellow
(Simon & Schuster, 2017)
I fell hard for Susan Perabo last year after reading her short-story collection Why They Run the Way They Do, a collection of somehow entirely domestic, and truly mysterious and strange stories. Maybe those aren’t quite the right adjectives: the stories in Why They Run the Way They Do felt and read not even as off-kilter, but more as off-focused: stories in which off-to-the-side details come in and toss wrenches into the works and make for deeply pleasing reading. Of course, most of our lives are dictated by these essential aspects: the person you haven’t thought of for years emails and, a year later, you’re married; the narrative you tell to yourself about yourself implodes in some self-reconfiguring way. These stories don’t feel, abstractly, to be all that hard to pull off, yet if you read enough, you know how tough they can be to find.
And so now I’m in the lucky position of being able to write about Perabo’s absolutely masterful new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow—which can be summed up easily: this should be the book to launch Susan Perabo into the realm of Known Writers, those folks whose each new work marks the landscape in overt ways. All her powerful skills are on display here—the vivid, telling details, the strangely askance story actually being told, the murky irresolution that’s somehow gratifying despite not delivering on what most readers will likely expect.
Maybe as important in describing what this book is, however, is acknowledging what it isn’t. In the simplest, broadest strokes, the story is about an abduction, and if you’re like most readers, you’re already wondering how closely Lisa Bellow hews to classic, well-worn whodunit tropes. Let me spoil everything: you never find out who the abductor is.
Of course, there’s much more to this story than the nuts/bolts of an abduction narrative. Specifically, there’s Meredith, a quiet, basic eighth-grader who, not being part of the bitchy, cool-girl clique, is doing her best just to keep on. “[In] fifth grade, there were some girls flirting with makeup and, yes, there were some girls flirting with boys, but it was all still as artificial as glittery lip gloss, all part of a world that no one yet really belonged to or understood [… but] middle school? A different story [… in] sixth grade, the playing field lurched to an impossible angle.” And who’s the center of the bitchy cool-girl clique? None other than Lisa Bellow, a character who, at the start of the book, you’re wondering how she’ll meet her comeuppance.
But of course (see above), simple binaries don’t carry much weight in Perabo’s work, and so you’ll likely be entirely unprepared for chapter three. Meredith has slogged through algebra promising herself a pop from the Deli Barn, a local sandwich spot, only to get there and find Lisa Bellow at the counter, ordering sandwiches. You’re only forty pages into the book but you’re already invested enough to care about how Meredith composes herself to face Lisa (a truly classic bitch is Lisa, having once told poor Meredith to sit fully on a chair so everybody wouldn’t have to see her fat ass hanging off the side [Meredith’s not fat]). But within pages the action of the novel begins: a ski-masked gunman enters the sandwich shop, demands cash, clocks the counter-guy, and, after telling Lisa and Meredith to get on the ground (where they’re close and looking at each other, taking turns crying and being scared), tells Lisa to get up. They leave.
And of course there are any number of critical opportunities in such a moment—does Meredith run to the door, memorize the guy’s license plate—hell, even just note the model of the escape vehicle? Does she scream for help, call the cops, etc.? She does nothing but lie on the floor, running over an algebra problem she missed earlier, one having to do with an asymptote, which Wikipedia defines as a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance.
Slot that for recall later.
This all merely sets the stage; most writers could find their way with such a setup, filigreeing it with detail and nuance that you’d expect, ultimately telling a fascinating story. Perabo does this, certainly, and it’s not just Meredith: Claire, her mom, is just as vividly drawn, just as complex (it wasn’t an affair she was having way back, but there was this interest, this hunger she now, post-almost-abduction, reflects on—plus Claire’s mean in the best way, finding the opportunity—through her job as a dentist—to jab the gums of a little boy who’d picked on Meredith). Plus there’s Mark, the dad, who comes off as a Totally Good Guy/Aloof-dad (his riff on being unable to find the mini Tater Tots his daughter likes had me howling in recognition), but also someone who’s earned his moral stiffness, his Goodness. Rounding out the family is Evan, former baseball star who, last year, took a ball to the face, which has left one eye permanently clouded and ended his career. All of which is simply to say: Perabo respects us and the story enough to paint Meredith’s shocking event/non-event in a larger, equally fraught context.
All of which is great and good. But for my money, The Fall of Lisa Bellow comes alive hardest, scariest, at chapter eleven. Getting too much into this would ruin the book’s mechanics; it’s not fair to claim that Perabo is offering some surprise here, but I’d be pissed as a reader if someone were to rob me of the development. In the broadest possible strokes, what Perabo does is offer the reader a glimpse of how Meredith processes this harrowing she’s been through, or proximate to, or whatever. I believe Perabo’s taken a fairly serious risk in doing things the way she has, but I think the rewards are stunning: by building a story that fundamentally exists within Meredith’s head, she gives the reader tremendous and unfettered access. Plus, the solution she’s come up with is so somehow sweet, so human and endearing and sad and sweet. It’s easy, in narratives which feature Heavy Happenings, to allow a touch of Hollywood in, to revert to norms or procedures the reader’s seen in movies or other books—have Meredith be hounded by press or something, say. Much harder and more interesting is to actually allow the reader to consider what the hell one would even do to cope through such an event anyway. What would you do if you’d been on that floor and left? How would you square the terrible arbitrariness of existence?
It’s not giving much away to note that Meredith and Lisa’s relationship has something asymptotic about it, but it’d give away too much to note more. It’s giving away nothing at all to report that The Fall of Lisa Bellow should be Susan Perabo’s breakthrough, and that this is a dynamite, stunning book that’ll hang in you long after you finish it.