The Likeness

the likenessLast year, my mystery book club (we read mysteries, rather than being shrouded in mystery ourselves) read Tana French’s In the Woods. I admit that I was a bit prejudiced against it from the beginning, since it’s a) about a child’s murder, b) contemporary, and c) popular. But it pulled me in, suckered me, made me love it. French’s prose is very good, her plotting is excellent, and her sense for human relationships — the places in our psychology that make us long for connection and then screw that connection all to hell — is absolutely unerring. I had one or two reservations about In the Woods, but I had the strong feeling that those might be debut-novel problems, so I put her second novel on my TBR.

The Likeness begins with an absolutely preposterous premise — right up front! It doesn’t spring anything on you! — and builds an amazing mystery-thriller out of it. For this book, French brings back detective Cassie Maddox, who was one of the partners who solved the case in In the Woods. This time, the novel is from her point of view, as she goes undercover to solve the murder of Lexie Madison. The catch? Lexie Madison isn’t — or wasn’t — a real person; she was a former undercover identity of Cassie’s. Now, she’s shown up as a real dead body, and she looks as if she could be Cassie’s identical twin. (Cassie was an only child.) Cassie steps into Lexie’s life (only who is she really?) in the tight-knit group of housemates at Whitethorn House, to try to find out where all the tangled threads may lead.

You see what I mean, right? The doppelgänger thing is right out of Wilkie Collins or somewhere; I expected mesmerism next; and at first, the group of housemates, all postgrad students at Trinity College in Dublin, leaned a little too heavily on Donna Tartt. But French is too talented to let it stay that way. Cassie’s fierce love of the freedom of undercover work, and the fuse that lights in her; the interweaving personalities of the four housemates; the undercurrent of Lexie’s life and the actions leading to her death — all this is done with vividness and delicacy. French lets us see the beauty of those friendships, but also the way people can know each other so well that they drown each other. I mentioned that she’s good at the fragility of human relationships, and this book reinforces that in more ways than one.

This was a very satisfying mystery, beautifully written and breathlessly suspenseful. It was dark, but not because the detective was hopelessly depressed (*cough* Henning Mankell *cough*). To my own surprise, I think I’ve found a new favorite mystery author, huzzah!

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20 Responses to The Likeness

  1. realthog says:

    I loved this one too, and like yourself was amazed how French could make such a dark, convincing thriller out of a premise that was more Ellery Queen than Ian Rankin.

    • Jenny says:

      Have you read all of hers? I thought the first was good, and this one was better. I always like to see that kind of trajectory.

      • realthog says:

        I’ve read the same two that you have. I’ve liked them enough that, rather than binge, I want to spread them out — also to own them (as I do the first two) rather than get them from the library.

  2. Stephanie says:

    Oooohh…I bet In the Woods was a great book to read in a book club – there were bound to be a lot of strong opinions about it! I loved In the Woods which I read several years ago and have had The Likeness on my bedside table for ages. Not sure what has been stopping me from picking up but I think this post was just the kick in the pants I needed. Thanks!

    • Jenny says:

      Sometimes you’re just not “in the mood” for something that you’ve had for a long time. But yes, I’d definitely recommend it!

  3. Deb says:

    I’ve read all five (I think it is) of Tana French’s books and this, despite its you-must-suspend-disbelief premise, is my favorite; possibly because it’s the only one of French’s books narrated by a female character. All of the books have plenty of solid, complicated female characters, but this is the only one told from a female perspective.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m surprised about that! I’d guess that a female author would have more female POV characters. I wonder which I’ll like best — at this point I don’t see why I wouldn’t read them all…

  4. Denise says:

    Popular makes me think twice too! But your description of the premise was intriguing. I think I will order a copy – I need something quick and intriguing to get through. My latest lend of a read involves torture machines that put people’s eyes out, and child sex abuse, and I’m feeling bogged down.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, ugh, that sounds dreadful. I almost want you to tell me what it is so I can avoid it, but I can’t think I’d pick it up under any circumstances! This is dark, but dark in the way relationships get when they go bad.

  5. Nicola says:

    Thanks for your review, I’m going to give this a go! The Sunday Times Culture section was comparing it to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History so it must be good.

    • Jenny says:

      It’s not really very like that. It’s about a group of scholars whose very tight friendships get a bit too embroiled, so there’s a superficial similarity, but the motivations and personalities are not at all alike, and the POV character makes the whole thing feel quite different. Each good in its own way!

  6. Okay okay okay okay, maybe I will give Tana French another try. You are making an excellent case for it, and I have only read one of her books, and maybe it and I weren’t right for each other right at that moment.

    • Jenny says:

      Well, at least wait until you’re off your hiatus of murders of white girls. There’s no need to break it for this one. It’s definitely good, but not so epically great that you need to break a hiatus for it.

  7. jenclair says:

    I’ve enjoyed all of them, but The Likeness remains one of my favorites

  8. Melissa says:

    French is so fantastic! I’ve read the first. 4 of her novels and I just love them.

  9. aparatchick says:

    I’ve read all of her books; she’s one of the few authors whose books I want to read immediately upon release. So far, Faithful Place is my favorite with Broken Harbor second. Her books are, as you say, very well written.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m really glad I have some good ones to look forward to — I was getting a little nervous, since several people had said their favorite was The Likeness. Thanks for this.

  10. Anne Simonot says:

    Tana French is always worth reading. Like a few earlier commenters, The Likeness is my fave, but Faithful Place is a close second. Part of what I like about her is how each book, although a mystery involving the Dublin Murder Squad, is different from the others – in characters, tone, subject matter. I just finished Broken Harbour and it was dark and claustrophobic, tighter in feel and setting, more of a traditional police procedural; while Faithful Place features the lead detective’s sprawling, dysfunctional family and uses a bigger canvas, so to speak. Books about torture and child abuse (which well-meaning people have pressed on me too) just leave me feeling depressed and kind of soiled, and I now just avoid them.

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