In which I attempt to put my feelings about my favorite book of all time into words.
I discovered Tana French one summer day while wandering around Central Park on my lunch break. I picked up In The Woods because it sounded interesting (also, the cover was cool). I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I reviewed that amazing book here. (Do not go past the jump as there are SPOILERS and that book is so wonderful you must read it unspoiled.)
In The Woods is the story of Rob, a 30-something detective in Ireland, solving a case with his partner Cassie. Full disclosure: I’m not necessarily a detective novel person. But these books are so much more than simply detective novels. They’re psychological thrillers, in-depth character studies, devastating, realistic portraits of humanity, all composed of the most beautiful prose I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
And God the taste of undercover on my tongue again, the brush of it down the little hairs on my arms. I’d thought I remembered what it was like, every detail, but I’d been wrong: memories are nothing, soft as gauze against the ruthless razor-fineness of that edge, beautiful and lethal, one tiny slip and it’ll slice to the bone.
In The Woods ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, to put it mildly. So when I was told there was a sequel told from Cassie’s point of view, I obviously picked it up ASAP.
Except The Likeness isn’t exactly a sequel. You can read it without reading In The Woods–but don’t. So much of what happened in that book affects Cassie’s behavior in this one, and to skip that one is to miss out on so much of the beautifully woven threads that make up The Likeness.
I will have to get spoiler-y to talk about my love for this book but I will save it for after the jump.
So why should you read this book?
The Goodreads summary is brief:
Six months after the events of In the Woods, an urgent telephone call beckons detective Cassie Maddox to a grisly crime scene. The victim looks exactly like Cassie and carries ID identifying herself as Alexandra Madison, an alias Cassie once used. Suddenly, Cassie must discover not only who killed this girl, but, more importantly, who she is.
So the plot of this book requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief. Cassie finds the body of Lexie, who is identical to her in every way. So in an effort to find out who killed Lexie, Cassie goes undercover as her.
And she succeeds.
I would like to think that if some other person were to step into my life as me, the people I love would notice. So yes. Suspension of disbelief. But this book is so good you just don’t even care.
Tell me this beginning doesn’t hook you:
This is Lexie Madison’s story, not mine. I’d love to tell you one without getting into the other, but it doesn’t work that way. I used to think I sewed us together at the edges with my own hands, pulled the stitches tight and I could unpick them any time I wanted. Now I think it always ran deeper than that and farther, underground; out of sight and way beyond my control.
This much is mine though; everything I did. Frank puts it all down to the others, mainly to Daniel, while as far as I can tell Sam thinks that, in some obscure and slightly bizarro way, it was Lexie’s fault. When I say it wasn’t like that, they give me careful sideways looks and change the subject–I get the feeling Frank thinks I have some creepy variant of Stockholm syndrome. That does happen to undercovers sometimes, but not this time. I’m not trying to protect anyone; there’s no one left to protect. Lexie and the others will never know they’re taking the blame and wouldn’t care if they did. But give me more credit than that. Someone else may have dealt the hand, but I picked it up off the table, I played every card, and I had my reasons.
Lexie lived with her best friends, four other students in a rambling old mansion outside of Dublin. So Cassie moves in with them. And gets so caught up in their world, their strange, flawed, intertwined lives, that solving the mystery of who killed Lexie nearly becomes secondary to her.
“That kind of friendship doesn’t just materialize at the end of the rainbow one morning in a soft-focus Hollywood haze. For it to last this long, and at such close quarters, some serious work had gone into it. Ask any ice-skater or ballet dancer or show jumper, anyone who lives by beautiful moving things: nothing takes as much work as effortlessness.”
People have compared this novel to The Secret History and it’s true there are a tremendous amount of similarities. Brilliant, eccentric students, a dead body, secrets, etc. But the difference is that every character in the Secret History is such a horrible human being to the point where you struggle to believe they could even exist. In contrast, Daniel, Abby, Rafe, and Justin are real, they’re funny, they’re lovely, they’re devastatingly flawed. Like Cassie, I fell in love with each and every one of them. I wanted to climb inside this book and live there.
“And then there’s its hair,” Justin said, pushing the vegetables across to me. “Don’t forget the hair. It’s horrible.”
“It’s wearing a dead person’s hair,” Rafe informed me. “If you stick a pin in the doll, you can hear screaming coming from the graveyard. Try it.”
“See what I mean?” Abby said, to me. “Wusses. It’s got real hair. Why he thinks it’s from a dead person—”
“Because your poppet was made in about 1890 and I can do subtraction.”
It’s the relationships between these people that really get to you. (The Irishness of them all is pretty cool, too.) Above all, this is a story of friends who love each other. It’s the kind of love that generally gives way to family and spouse love as people grow up and get married and have children. Friendship love. Tana French has said:
I’m fascinated by friendship … I think it’s possible to be a healthy, fulfilled human being without a partner or children, but I’m not sure it’s possible to be a whole, healthy human being without good friends, so I’ve always been interested in the intensity of friendship and the dangers that can come with that. Great friendships are incredibly powerful, passionate things and I think it’s explored less in fiction than the danger that might come in romantic or family relationships.
And it’s simply this–friendship–that makes this book so powerful. That–and how easily it can break.
When you’re too close to people, when you spend too much time with them and love them too dearly, sometimes you can’t see them. Unless Daniel was bluffing, he had made one last mistake, the same one he had been making all along. He was seeing the other four not as they were but as they should have been, could have been in some softer-edged and warmer world.
If you haven’t read this book, go do so immediately. (After reading In The Woods.)
If you have read this book and want to hear me blather about it some more, read on…
SPOILERS BELOW. DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THIS BOOK.
In addition to loving the characters, this book has significantly altered the way I view the world.
Daniel says, in the best conversation I’ve ever read:
“There’s a Spanish proverb that’s always fascinated me. “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.'” I don’t believe in God, but that principle seems, to me, to have a divinity of its own; a kind of blazing purity. What could be simpler, or more crucial? You can have anything you want, as long as you accept that there is a price and that you will have to pay it.
…Regardless of what the advertising campaigns may tell us, we can’t have it all. Sacrifice is not an option, or an anachronism; it’s a fact of life. We all cut off our own limbs to burn on some altar. The crucial thing is to choose an altar that’s worth it and a limb you can accept losing. To go consenting to the sacrifice.”
I think I spent too many years listening to advertising campaigns, or maybe just grew up hearing, “You can have anything if you put your mind to it!” But as Daniel says, that’s simply not true. For everything you get in life, you have to give something else up.
Then Daniel says:
“I truly wanted only two things in this world: the company of my friends, and the opportunity for unfettered thought.”
Since reading this book, I’ve made my own lists of the things that I want. And as I work slowly but steadily towards getting them, there are other things I’m forced to give up. And that’s normal and inevitable. I think this was the first time I ever really thought of it this way.
Daniel explains that he’d never met anyone he cared about in life–nothing worth making sacrifices for–until he met his friends.
“The world transformed itself around me: the stakes shot up, colors were so beautiful they hurt, life became almost unimaginably sweet and almost unimaginably frightening. It’s so fragile, you know; things are so easily broken. I suppose this must be what it’s like to fall in love, or to have a child, and to know that this could be taken from you at any moment.”
This book is above all about people clinging desperately to the one thing that’s the most important to them–each other. But the issue with strong friendships, like the ones they’d forged, is that they generally don’t last beyond your twenties–at least not in the way he expected them to. Daniel wanted them to stay best friends, living in this house together, forever.
“As you get older, you begin to find things that are worth holding onto, forever. All of a sudden you’re playing for keeps, as children say, and it changes the very fabric of you.”
The characters in this story hold onto each other the way religious people hold onto their faith. It’s what keeps them going. And the thing that’s so devastating about all of it is, the thing that draws Cassie into their lives so intensely, is that she knows exactly how they feel. It’s what she had–and lost–with her partner Rob, in In The Woods:
“I would venture to guess,” Daniel said, “that you haven’t yet found anything or anyone that you want for keeps.”
Steady gray eyes and the hypnotic gold shimmer of the whiskey, sound of water, leaf shadows swaying like a darker wreath on his dark hair. “I used to have a partner,” I said, “at work. We were like you guys: we matched. People talked about us the way you do about twins, like we were one person–‘That’s MaddoxandRyan’s case, get MaddoxandRyan to do it…’ If anyone had asked me, I’d have said this was it, the two of us, for the rest of our careers, we’d retire on the same day so neither of us would ever have to work with anyone else and the squad would give us one gold watch between us. I didn’t think about any of that at the time, mind. I just took it for granted. I couldn’t imagine anything else.”
Daniel nodded. “But that was in another country,” he said, “and besides, that wench is dead.”
“That about sums it up, yeah.” He was looking at me with something in his eyes that went beyond kindness, beyond compassion: understanding. I think in that moment I loved him.
What happens when you lose the thing that keeps you going? Your religion, if you will?
Probably the same thing that happens to the characters in this book.
Daniel looked around at the others: Abby poised ready and helpless, Rafe hunched glaring on the sofa, Justin twisted round to stare up at him with huge frightened eyes. “Shh,” he said to them, and put a finger to his lips. I had never seen that much love and tenderness and incredible urgency in anyone’s face, ever. “Not one word. No matter what.”
They stared at him. “It’ll be all right,” he said. “Really, it will. It’s going to be fine.” He was smiling.
Then he turned to me and his head moved, a tiny private nod I’d seen a thousand times before. Me and Rob, eyes catching across a door that wouldn’t open, an interview-room table, and that almost invisible nod passing between us: Go.
It took so long. Daniel’s free hand coming up in slow motion, a long fluid arc, to brace the gun…
This story is absolutely devastating. I don’t think I’ve cried so hard at any book, ever. People clinging to each other in the midst of a changing world, trying so hard to make what they have last. But nothing lasts. And they end up clinging so hard they destroy each other.
And that is why I love this book so, so, so much.
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