The Likeness by Tana French
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I’m going to talk my way through deciding where this book leaves me, how many stars to hand out.
The premise is excellent, with smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand. Twist one: A young woman who has assumed the false identity created by a former undercover cop is murdered. Twist two: The two women are doppelgängers. So, police pretend the victim survived and recovers, the cop resumes the identity and goes back undercover to solve the case. What’s not to love?
One thing for me not to love was the pacing. It starts out with a bang, then moves at a glacial pace as Detective Cassie Maddox resumes her former undercover identity to return “home” to a houseful of Ph.D.-candidate roommates, one of whom may have tried to kill “her.” The setup is necessary, I suppose, but it drags, with an awful lot of wordy atmospheric stage-setting. It’s lovely writing, but so much of it feels like it’s padding.
The other thing not to love was the entire group of housemates. Five doctoral-level grad students who are always together, evidently with identical course schedules, always going to and from college together, always sitting down for meals together, doing each other’s laundry and spending evenings in the same room together, draping their legs over each other’s laps and finishing each other’s sentences and eating from each other’s plates. Maybe it makes me a terrible friend, but keep your fingers out of my food and your feet out of my face, mmmkay? But more than that, beyond close friendship or snooty insularity or even blurred boundaries, there is an undertone of perverse not-quite-sexuality to it that made me feel I was in danger of being sucked into a cult. Was it supposed to be that way? This group of people gave me some serious creeps, better than a chain-rattling ghost or a maniac with a machete ever could. If that was intentional then more kudos to French and to our fictional detective as well, for being able to sleep under the same roof with them. If I met that bunch in real life, I’d bolt.
At first blush it seems a little fantastic that four people who had intimately known the dead woman could be completely fooled by an undercover who hadn’t known her at all, but on the other hand, we are quite good at convincing ourselves we are seeing what we expect to see. So I was fine with that aspect of it, and it wasn’t until I hit 75% that I really had to suspend my disbelief to absorb the crisis point, the hook for the ending. I let myself be hooked because the pace was finally picking up; it had taken me a week to read the first three-quarters, but I read the last quarter in an afternoon. This is not a tied-up-with-a-pretty-bow ending; there is a vagueness to it that I appreciate. Life is not tidy. After everything’s over, there’s always something left to wonder about.
Note that some other reviewers didn’t mind the pacing and/or hated the ending, so your mileage may vary. The plotting is stellar. I enjoy the psych-thriller aspect as much as I enjoy the mystery/police procedural. French skillfully writes an almost mystic connection between the undercover and the dead woman, with a feeling that they had somehow summoned each other. Her prose is lovely, and she rocks at distilling impressions into words. I liked In the Woods better, but I remain a fan; I’ve already reserved Faithful Place at my library. All three books are from the POV’s of three different yet connected characters; I’m looking forward to Frank Mackey’s POV.
This would be a four-star read but for the pacing, so the verdict is three stars, which is just fine.
Bookshelves: crime, whodunit, detective, mystery, ireland, psych-thriller, police-procedural, heebie-jeebies
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