Susan Perabo’s new novel, The Fall of Lisa Bellow, highlights the brain’s remarkable capacity to cope with extraordinary circumstances—including the aftermath of an abduction.
Meredith Oliver is an average 13-year-old girl with a close-knit circle of friends and an older brother she adores. She considers herself in the middle tier of the school’s social hierarchy, but she’s wracked with a level of anxiety any young teen would recognize. Lisa Bellow, on the other hand, is a Queen Bee who dates high school lacrosse players and terrorizes her peers with cutting remarks. But one day after school, Meredith and Lisa both end up at a local deli when a masked gunman enters to rob the cash register. Before fleeing, he commands Lisa to go with him, leaving Meredith in shock on the floor.
In the weeks that follow, Meredith becomes obsessed with Lisa, reconsidering their shared childhood memories and adopting aspects of Lisa’s physicality and personality. Perabo succeeds in capturing the complex dynamics between middle school girls, writing Meredith and Lisa as nemeses bonded through years of familiarity and shared experiences. As the reality of Lisa’s likely fate sinks in, Meredith views the girl less as “Lisa Bellows: Popular Bully” and more as a complex human being.
To get to that place of understanding, Meredith goes to dark lengths to envision what life is like for the missing teenager. She imagines every nightmare Lisa could be experiencing, blurring reality and initially lending the book a supernatural element that feels out of place. But when it becomes clear that Meredith understands her own role in picturing Lisa’s life, it becomes a fascinating examination of Meredith’s own fears, capability for kindness and ideas of comfort.
Perabo does attempt weave too many narrative threads; Meredith’s family is blighted by accidents and disputes, adding unnecessary tension to an already emotionally rich story. Meredith’s brother suffered a baseball injury a year before Lisa was kidnapped that left his eye socket destroyed and his future baseball career in tatters. Meredith’s parents have been roiled by emotional infidelity. Any of the subplots read as if they could be driving forces in the story, yet they only compete for attention with the central narrative.
Perabo makes up for this by delivering a realistic portrayal of Meredith’s 13-year-old psyche, tackling survivor’s guilt and the impact of trauma. The Fall of Lisa Bellow ultimately offers a captivating examination of grief—and hope—as Meredith constructs an elaborate universe for her imagined version of Lisa.
Bridey Heing is a freelance writer based in Washington, DC. More of her work can be found here.