"Sometimes in the morning, while she waited for her brother to get out of the bathroom, Meredith Oliver would stand in front of her bureau mirror, lock eyes with her reflection, and say, "This is me. This is really me. Right now. This is me. This is my real life. This is me."~from The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo: A Must Read About Mothers, Daughters, Trauma and Loss
When I read the first page of The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo, I wasn't sure it was going to be for me. Not only am I extremely picky about the novels I spend time with (have you seen my Instagram shelfie shots? It's obnoxious how long my 'to-be-read' list is), but also I spend every work day surrounded by girls like the main character of the novel, Meredith Oliver. Meredith is a typically self-conscious eighth-grade girl. Now I love my job teaching 8th grade, but sometimes at the end of the day, I just want to escape into a novel nowhere near my real life.
I'm sure glad I didn't give up on this one. The Fall of Lisa Bellow got under my skin - in a good way. That's why I'm calling this one a 'must read' about mothers, daughters, trauma, and loss.
What it's about:
Meredith Oliver is the youngest in her family; her parents, are both dentists and her brother Evan, is a high school junior. The novel starts off describing her typical teenage angst as she goes about her day, feeling overshadowed by her brother who has experienced life-changing trauma. The plot takes an uptick when on an ordinary day, in broad daylight, Meredith finds herself in the middle of a sandwich shop robbery, quivering in fear on the dirty floor next to the most popular girl in her eighth-grade class, Lisa Bellow. When the gunman chooses Lisa as his hostage, leaving Meredith behind, the plot expands to pull in their families, Meredith's emotional struggle with being the survivor, and the ripple effects of trauma on the mothers of both girls.
Meredith's mom, Claire, is uncomfortably pulled into the grief Lisa's mom is experiencing, which forces Claire to desperately try to cling to her own daughter, the survivor. Claire's character development weaves threads of maternal guilt, the anxiety of knowing if she's doing the 'right thing', and the universal struggle between parent and child during adolescence. Evan, Meredith's brother, appears first as a victim of his own traumatic accident and develops as an example of how one can rise and triumph. Mrs. Bellow, Lisa's mom, portrays the gut-shattering grief experienced by parents experiencing the loss of their child, and the conflict of trying to live without her.
Why I liked it:
Aside from the fact that I am fascinated by the teenage mind and how humans seem to navigate into and out of its murkiness, I think what I connected with most in this novel was the battle experienced by Claire as she grappled with her maternal instincts versus the reality of her life as a mother, wife, and woman. I know firsthand, like so many mothers, what happens when our children are hurt, either mentally or physically. When my son experienced his ski racing injury and had to rehabilitate and adjust the trajectory of his life experience, I felt the anxiety of second guessing the enormity of his experience and wanting to trust my belief that 'all will be well'. You can read my reflection on that experience here. Motherhood is no simple task, and add in marriage and career and mid-life disquietude I certainly connected with Susan Perabo's character.
One of my favorite scenes came about half way through the novel. Claire, in desperate attempt to connect to her daughter's experience, is consulting Meredith's therapist. Frustrated at her inability to control the situation, Claire asks,
"How will I know when she's ready?"
"You've been protecting her your whole life," he said. "You'll know."
But he was wrong. Protecting her? ...She could not protect her daughter. She could not protect her from the stomach flu. She could not protect her from cancer or AIDS or the common cold. She could not protect her from the mean girls. She could not protect her from her friends. She could not protect her from her own thoughts...She could vaccinate them and make them wear seatbelts and batting helmets. She could give them cell phones with emergency numbers on speed dial. She could give them straight-talk books and scared straight DVDs and a solid, honest, pitch-perfect piece of advice every single morning on their way out the door. But in the end, there was no intervention.
There was only awareness"
~from The Fall of Lisa Bellow, page 165
How many parents have felt this urge to protect, to intervene, to try to anticipate every hurt and shield our children from the pain of real life? This novel reminded me so much of the book If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie with a somewhat reverse plot line. I wrote a post inspired by If I Fall, If I Die called "Please Don't Go Outside" in which I explored the paradox of wanting your children to grow and love and become their own person and the fear of letting them go where you can't see. You can read it here.
I also enjoyed the narrative structure of the story; told in alternating points of view, the novel bubbled with tension and kept me connecting with both Meredith and Claire as the plot unfolded. Additionally, there were points in the storytelling where I found myself pausing and thinking about why the writer chose a sort of 'flashback' technique that made me wonder if I was really understanding the point of view at all. This beautiful writing, combined with authentic characters and suspenseful plot lines, kept me pushing to finish my end of the year grading so I could reward myself with just a few more chapters of this lovely book.
Who should read it?
As I paged through the story, I questioned if this was a young-adult novel or simply a story for parents struggling with watching their children grow. At the end, I decided it was both. I'm going to share this book in my 8th-grade classroom, and watch who gravitates towards it. I think teens will certainly connect with Meredith's character and conflict, and I know moms and parents will align with Claire and Mrs. Bellow's challenges.
Overall, I think The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a must read, and I sure hope you'll come back here and let me know what your thoughts are.
This post first appeared on http://jenniferwolfe.net. The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo is published by Simon & Schuster, who provided me with a complimentary copy. All opinions are my own.