Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Likeness by Tana French

Do you believe that out there somewhere is a person with the same face as you? Someone who has not just a passing likeness, but an exact copy of your face? Could you believe that if aforementioned person died you would be able to step into their life and pretend to be them, fooling the people dearest to them?

For me the concept of exact doubles (other than identical womb-sharers) is like little green men on Mars, or telekinesis; I’d like it to be real but I can’t quite believe it. Aside from the face, happening upon the correct voice, mannerisms, histories and personal idiosyncrasies so as to fool colleagues, friends and lovers would also be quite a challenge, I’d imagine.

Cassie Maddox is a detective who once went undercover for several months using a self-created identity, that of a student: Lexie Madison. Years later when Cassie has moved to a different department within the Irish police force, a murder victim turns up with identification pertaining to the invented Lexie Madison. The rub is that not only does the corpse possess Cassie’s false identity, she also possesses Cassie’s face. Initial investigations indicate that the interloper has taken over Lexie from where Cassie left off, even enrolling at a college to study for a PhD. Assuming that the impersonator had repeatedly been mistaken for a person called Lexie Madison and had for some reason assumed that name and life, Cassie’s unstable boss comes up with a cunning plan for Cassie to impersonate the victim and hopefully gain some clue as to Lexie’s murderer. So off Cassie goes in Lexie’s clothes to Whitethorn House, a crumbling manor house on the edge of the moors where Lexie lived a seemingly idyllic life with her four student friends, who are rather more like soul-mates than friends.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this novel would be dreadful: the plot seems unlikely, melodramatic, and includes the sort of mission that would surely never be approved by any police force. How then does Tana French steer the book away from ridiculousness and into the realms of gripping thriller?

Concept reservations aside, The Likeness is a densely-written, emotionally-intelligent novel with a cast of fascinating characters and lashings of suspense. As a writer and a reader I admired the quality of Tana French’s prose, which goes far beyond the functional and is often beautifully lyrical. The novel works well as a thriller as the unlikeliness of Cassie being able to accurately impersonate Lexie (and the resulting potential for disaster) greatly amps up the tension. The reader waits on tenterhooks to see if Cassie will be discovered as a fraud, all the time wondering quite how her new friends will react if they discover who she is.

A few pages in I was entranced and swept along by the narrative. The writing and the characterisation was engaging and I enjoyed inhabiting the world of Whitethorn House with Cassie. I was keen to find out who had murdered Lexie, and was pleased to find that I had guessed incorrectly.

So if the reading process was enjoyable and the book unputdownable, does it matter that the central concept was a tad implausible?

Incidentally, now that we are nearing Christmas I am going to flag up books that I think would make excellent presents. This is one of them. It is a handsome, addictive book of roaring fires, intense relationships and psychological complexity. Just the thing for getting a grumpy reveller like me through the festive season.

Hodder & Stoughton, ISBN-13: 978-0340924778, Hardcover, 560 pages, £12,99.

15 comments on “The Likeness by Tana French

  1. RosyB
    October 29, 2008

    “Do you believe that out there somewhere is a person with the same face as you? Someone who has not just a passing likeness, but an exact copy of your face?”

    No.

    I don’t know. Unless the book is doing something symbolic or something where you know (and it knows) you have to suspend disbelief and it doesn’t matter or isn’t the point…but i can’t imagine how that would work in a thriller really. Or unless it’s a comedy! But it doesn’t sound like it. I don’t know. I think I would have a hard time with this one. But it sounds like you really enjoyed it so maybe I’m being unimaginative.

  2. Lisa
    October 29, 2008

    It’s not a comedy! Heavens! ;) I’ve read other reviews of this book and they seem to be love or hate. The ‘doubles’ thing is a definite hurdle but once I’d got over the oddity of that notion I did enjoy The Likeness very much. The unlikely plot yields plenty of scope for psychological delving, and that aspect was fascinating. And I’d have to say, in this age of ‘everything’s already been done’ at least the plot was original! Although one might contend others had not used this plot for a reason…

    Sigh. I think it is fair to say that I’m in two minds about The Likeness. Nonetheless, if we did ratings here, I’d give it 8/10.

  3. Poppy
    October 29, 2008

    Actually, i really like the sound of this!!

    I read another thriller by Tana French – ‘in the woods’, and liked the character of Cassie Maddox. Wondering if anyone else has read that, because there was an apparently unsolved mystery in it, which i thought was explained in the last page or so, but none of the amazon reviews i read mentioned it – and if it’s what i thought it was, then it was really rather fanciful and incredible. So i’m not sure.
    ??

  4. Lisa
    October 29, 2008

    Hi Poppy! I haven’t read In the Woods, but I will try to get hold of a copy. I liked Cassie too. I’d be interested to hear what you make of The Likeness if you do decide to read it.

    Another point about The Likeness: at the end of the book I wished the author hadn’t tied up so many of the loose ends. I would have liked to have kept guessing about who Lexie really was, rather than to have been shown ‘the truth’. I think the book would have stayed with me more if it hadn’t been so neatly resolved. But I suppose there is a balance between satisfying the reader’s curiosity and ending on an intriguing note.

  5. Charlotta
    October 29, 2008

    Great review Lisa – this sounds really interesting and right up my street. Definitely going on my Christmas list! (ahem, who says at 27 I’m too old for them!!??)

  6. Lisa
    October 29, 2008

    Hope you like it (if Father Xmas does bring it for you!) The hardback is a lovely looking thing – it even came with yellow crime scene tape wrapped around it :)

  7. michigan tom
    October 29, 2008

    For those of us who spend “quality” hours of daily life on a treadmill with a CD player trying to bash off a few tons, HIGHLY recommended is the audio version of The Likeness. Heather O’Neill’s performance makes a terriffic book even better. You might even be drven to pound out an extra mile or so just to keep listening! (Tip: also loved audio of Iodine by Haven Kimmel)

  8. Lisa
    October 29, 2008

    I’ve heard that thrillers make excellent audio books. I’ve listened to audio books in the car but never on my treadmill. Will have to give that a try! Thanks Michigan tom :D

  9. Jackie
    October 29, 2008

    It’s a testament to the skill of the author that she can make you get so involved & like a book with such an implausible plot. I’ve read books like that, and once you suspend disbelief, it can work fine. This one intrigues me and I like the marketing idea of the crime scene tape. That was clever.
    I really hope there isn’t anyone else out there with my ugly mug, I have enough trouble with it, I wouldn’t want to wish my looks on anyone else.

  10. Sam
    October 29, 2008

    “It’s a testament to the skill of the author…”

    Or, of course, the gullibility of the reader.

  11. Jackie
    October 30, 2008

    Are you saying Lisa is gullible???

  12. Lisa
    October 30, 2008

    Well, I am a bit gullible ;)
    (btw ‘gullible’ is a really weird-looking word)

  13. Moira
    October 30, 2008

    Isn’t it more a case of being prepared to suspend disbelief? If something is well-written and entertaining, we’re prepared to overlook the implausibilities and go with the flow.

  14. Pingback: Book Club Nominations « I’m Booking It

  15. Pingback: Tana French – The Likeness « Fyrefly's Book Blog

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This entry was posted on October 29, 2008 by in Entries by Lisa, Fiction: crime, Fiction: thriller and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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