Laura Lippman's latest novel explores crimes of the heart

McClatchy-Tribune News ServiceFebruary 20, 2014 

  • BOOK REVIEW

    'After I'm Gone'

    By Laura Lippman

    Morrow. 352 pages. $26.99.

Few of us ever completely recover from the loss of a loved one. Life, of course, goes on and can be rich and fulfilling. But that loss never entirely disappears.

Laura Lippman explores how a disappearance affects a family for decades in the enthralling After I'm Gone. In her eighth stand-alone novel and 19th overall, Lippman tracks the history of five women united by the betrayal of one man.

After I'm Gone is a quiet mystery — no car chases, barely a gun in sight — that derives its tension from the delicate balance that affects each woman.

It works well as a story of misplaced love, of consequences and the fragility of memory, and a solid private-detective story. It also explores a history of women through the decades, from the late 1950s through 2012, wrapped around the rituals of weddings, baby showers and bat mitzvahs — rituals that define and unite people, and sometimes pull them apart.

Shady businessman Felix Brewer faces a 15-year prison sentence when he disappears on the evening of the July 4, 1976. The Baltimore man leaves behind a wife, Bambi; three daughters, ages 3, 14 and 16; and a mistress, former stripper Julie.

He thinks he has made sure that he has left his family and Julie provided for. After all, Felix isn't a bad man; his "technically criminal enterprises ... required neither gun nor force, just a basic understanding of the human weakness for hope and possibility." But Felix's plans quickly go awry, and his family scrambles for every dollar.

A decade to the day after he disappears, Julie also vanishes.

It's not until 26 years after Felix left that Julie's body is uncovered deep in a Baltimore park. The cold case falls to Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, a former cop turned consultant. Sandy follows a labyrinth of relationships and secrets to find the truth behind Felix's disappearance and Julie's murder.

Lippman insightfully delves into each character, showing how each woman matures or falters through the years. The choices, goals and opportunities that Bambi had in 1959, when she first meets Felix at a Valentine's Day dance, differ vastly than those of her daughters in the 21st century. Through it all, the shadow of Felix colors their lives, his absence a part of each, "like a vine that wraps around a structure, sustains it even as it weakens it."

The tension-filled After I'm Gone succinctly examines the greatest mystery of all — crimes of the heart.

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