Book Review: The Likeness by Tana French (2008)

Warning: Contains Spoilers

At its best The Likeness by Tana French is a richly described mystery that offers both suspense and a memorable group of troubled personalities. The five graduate students, who along with Detective Cassie Maddox, are at the center of the story, form a cult-like group while living in Whitethorn, an Edwardian mansion that riles the local Irish for its ties to English suppression. The complementary descriptions of the fecund Wicklow countryside and psychological tangles of the novel’s characters–both the group and undercover detective Cassie Maddox struggle with problematic identities–make for a read that is striking and memorable. However, the novel is slow to start, and by its end, after chapters of acrimony among the house’s residents aggravated by Cassie’s deconstruction of their micro-society, the story loses its vitality and ends unconvincingly.  

At the beginning of the story Cassie is working a desk job in Domestic Violence. The trauma she experienced in Undercover and later on the Murder squad have left her inervated with “standard-issue trauma stuff.” First, she was stabbed by the university meth dealer whom she was investigating under the fictitious identity, Alexandra Madison, and in Murder she served on the notorious Operational Vestal, a “head-wrecker” that drove her away from the Murder squad. She is “so freaked out” she has to visit the police firing range first thing each day. ”Target shooting was the only thing I had found that worked the jitters out of me.”

Not surprisingly, Cassie is ripe for a change, and it comes when her former boss, legendary undercover cop Frank Mackey, offers her a new undercover assignment, this time as her doppelganger, Lexie Madison, a resident of Whitethorn who was stabbed and found dead in a broke down cottage near Whitethorn. The idea of Cassie playing Lexie among those who lived with her is so improbable it is preposterous. However, this element of genre-bending fantasy in The Likeness pays off with suspense (will Cassie’s identity be discovered by alpha-member Daniel and the others in the group?) and the exploration of character, both Cassie’s and Lexie’s.

Initially Cassie is entranced by Lexie. Her projection of Lexie onto herself–Lexie becomes a companion spirit whose history and personality she believes are intertwined with her own by fate–provides relief from her post-Murder squad despair. That Lexie was a free spirit adds to her allure, particularly as Cassie struggles with Frank, who has bumped aside her boyfriend Sam as the lead detective on the case. Frank is experienced, smart, and charismatic but untrustworthy. He shares neither his agenda with Cassie nor all of the case information he gathers. Most importantly, he is controlling, a trait that rankles Cassie..

Ultimately the oneness Cassie shares with Lexie and the example of Lexie’s lifelong independence prove unworkable as the basis for a revitalized sense of self. They are undermined by the contradictions inherent in Cassie being undercover. In doing so she misrepresents to the household both herself and the authentic Lexie. On another level, the real Lexie (nee Grace Audrey Corrigan of Western Australia) was not actually Lexie herself. She presumably stole the alias from Cassie who created it for her first undercover assignment. As the investigation of Corrigan’s past eventually reveals, her use of a phony identity is nothing new; she has a long history of being a poseur who periodically abandons one false identity for a new one elsewhere. The exhilaration Cassie feels in Lexie’s free spirited ramblings therefore is misplaced and even adolescent. Lexie’s pattern of running away, which began in childhood and was to continue with her secretly selling her share of Whitethorn, is compulsive and pathological.

The communal group at Whitethorn has an equally shaky foundation, although its members try to evade its realities by forbidding disclosure of “pasts.” Rafe, Abby, Justin, and probably Daniel are each the product of hostile parents. It is naive of them to deny recognition of bad pasts; they live on regardless whether their backgrounds are discussed or ignored. That’s not to say the members of the group are not close and incapable of enjoying each other. Cassie is captivated by their lively camaraderie, which extends to playing poker, partying, and even group brawling when they catch up with the vandal. Consequently her loyalty, to Frank’s dismay, becomes split between police duties and her attachment to the group. However the stress of Frank’s and Sam’s interrogations and the hostility of bitter villagers take its toll. Their rapport and good times turn into strife with Rafe regularly acting out as a mean drunk, Justin emoting, and Abby telling both to shut up. Cassie, in hopes of learning who stabbed Lexie and why, raises tensions in the house by probing “cracks” in the group’s individual relationships. Unfortunately for the reader, this period of acrimony becomes tiresome. It feels like an extended stay in a dysfunctional household.

With all of that going on, there is the unsettling presence of Daniel, a controlled and rational presence who politely issues edicts to the other members of the household. The sense that Daniel might become unhinged–controlled personalities in suspense fiction usually lose it–is ratcheted up by the discovery of a pistol brought back from World War I by Whitethorn’s late patriarch, The old theater dictum–a gun revealed in act one is fired in act five–proves true. Cassie and Daniel square off, and Cassie kills Daniel with her police .38. 

The ending of The Likeness is unsatisfying. When Cassie is facing Frank’s gun, she internally says Sam’s name in the manner of those wounded in battle crying for their mothers.  French presents Cassie’s cry as evidence of her attachment to Sam, a relationship that throughout the novel it is not given sufficient depth and passion to warrant primacy. The day after the shooting, still traumatized by her killing of Daniel, Cassie accepts Sam’s proposal for marriage, which seems inappropriate given her dazed condition. Who in the hell gets engaged the day after shooting somebody?. Equally starting is Cassie ‘s surrender to convention after her earlier excitement about independence and freedom. Is French hinting at Cassie acquiring a newfound maturity with dialed-down expectations? Or Is she once again just trying to work out the jitters?. 

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