Thirteen-year-old Meredith Oliver is immersed in the social anxiety of middle school when she becomes accidental witness to the harrowing kidnapping of Lisa Bellow, the most popular 8th grader in her school. Meredith stops by the local sandwich shop during an ill-fated robbery attempt and finds herself prone on the dirty floor with the usually-poised Lisa, by whom she has always felt ridiculed and ignored.
The gunman chooses Lisa as his hostage and Meredith is left with guilt, angst, and an irreparably changed outlook on life as she copes with the fallout of the crime and her narrow escape from abduction like Lisa. Meredith feels cut off from her emotionally distant mom Claire and bewildered by the attention showered on her by Lisa’s cadre of “in-crowd” girlfriends.
Meredith almost enjoys the notoriety that the crime brings but feels conflicted about being “adopted” into Lisa’s social set and the difficulties that it brings with her existing friends. She also has trouble coping with the emotional neediness of Lisa’s lonely mother Colleen who wants to create a relationship with Meredith to assuage the loss of her own daughter.
Even Meredith’s nurturing older brother Evan is going through his own crisis of confidence related to a life-altering sports accident. He’s wrapped up in his own physical illness and the resulting societal lowered expectations that it brings, and he can’t support Meredith in the dark emotional rollercoaster of survivor’s guilt.
“The Fall of Lisa Bellow” gets inside the psyche of wounded teens, the poignancy of sudden familial loss, and the domino effect of unsolved crime on the friends, families, and associates of the victim. It represents a beautifully written meditation on teen social conventions, random violence, family dynamics, and the nature of suffering and redemption in the face of the unknown.
This is a haunting novel that poses more questions than it answers. It’s strong on characterization and a large portion of the narrative is told from the point of view of Claire Oliver, Meredith’s mother, as though the author could not sustain the voice of a young teenager throughout the entire work. However, Claire has her own realization from the incident, that parents can’t always protect their oved ones—just stay around to clean up the fallout.
Ultimately, this novel can be enjoyed as a rumination on the American family under internal and external stress, but disappoints for those readers expecting a crime thriller with a neat resolution.
Author Susan Perabo is a professor English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and she typically writes short stories. This is her second book. The first was a collection of short stories published under the title “Why They Run the Way They Do.”
Lisa Kobrin is the Reference Manager and Genealogy Librarian at the May Memorial Library. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (336) 229-3588.