I binged The Likeness in about two and a half days—something I’ve not done in a long time. I couldn’t stop reading. This book, another murder mystery by Tana French, packs in the double-whammy of a whodunnit and the immersive magical experience of a fairytale world. I didn’t expect to want to be in place where a murder had occurred, but I did. I haven’t been this enchanted with a fictional world since I was a child, and this one takes place in the suburbs of Dublin. Theoretically, it could be real.
This is not your typical crime story. It is more of a surreal prose poem, from the very beginning, from the prologue. Looking back, I see that the ending is given away almost from the first page. The story is not about what happened, but why, and how.
Cassie is a charming, insightful narrator and I wish we could be friends. She plays with language, calls curtains fugly. She says, of being a detective, things that easily apply to a writer, or to an introvert, or to anyone who isn’t living fully because they think they’re not supposed to: “I had always felt that I was an observer, never a participant; that I was watching from behind a thick glass wall as people went about the business of living—and did it with such ease, with a skill that they took for granted and that I had never known.”
This statement is followed by Cassie, after integrating into the house, beginning to feel that she is truly alive. That deeper self that is so seldom awakened is allowed to thrive. Cassie feels she’s returned home, even though she’s never been to Whitethorn House before. I think many of us are homesick for Whitethorn House: to live in a mansion with four kindred spirits who perfectly understand and accept you, to shut out nasty reality and live in the 19th century except with electricity, to discover secrets in the upstairs room, to live in a perpetual summer with endless days that turn into sparkling evenings spent reading in front of a crackling fire. It's similar to the part in Jane Eyre where she conveniently bumps into her awesome cousins and they save her life and everyone gets along great. Idyllic but doomed to temporality.
Each of the four roommates are fully formed and flushed out with the level of detail only a detective would notice: how they carry themselves, how they interact with one another, how much they're hiding. They're complex and enigmatic. No wonder Cassie falls under the spell. No wonder I did.
Not unlike Thelma and Louise, the mythical victim, Lexie Madison, joins the ranks of wild and free women who refuse to be bound by society, by reality. They run for the sake of it, because that’s who they are. Even though this makes no actual sense and in all counts leads to premature death, it is inspiring. Live free or die. Cassie takes something away from living Lexie’s life and begins to live more fully in her own. (I think? It's unclear how much she's actually capable of such a thing.) Good for her, but I’m not modeling myself after a murdered person.
I was a bit suprised by the mixed, leaning-towards-negative reviews. I totally agree, the premise is out-there: Cassie, the former partner of Rob Ryan, main character of In the Woods, goes undercover when she finds that someone who looks exactly like her has been murdered. That person had assumed Cassie’s undercover name, Lexie Madison. Cassie seamlessly inserts herself into the victim’s life to find the murderer. It just so happens that the victim lives with her four kindred spirits in pastoral, communal bliss. There are obvious issues with this: it’s pretty darn unlikely that you could have a biologically unrelated doppelgänger, and then that you happen to have experience as an undercover cop, and that you could pick up your doppleganger’s life right where they left off.
There’s a lot that doesn’t makes sense. It bothers me but I also don’t care. I’m too busy caring about the characters and wishing I could be the sixth member of their cult.
I’ll go over a few issues I slightly care about so as not to appear a synchophant. A Frenchie, if you will.
There was no reason to turn this murder investigation into an undercover operation. But an undercover agent got involved. If you ask a surgeon what to do, they’ll say surgery; if an undercover gets his way, he’ll say undercover and fight for it to happen. The impulsivity of these cops is scary; we’re at the mercy of their curiosity. The police performed an experiment on real people, and destroyed four lives. This bothers me so much because the characters feel real to me.
The killer—I won’t tell you who—leaves something to be desired. We never get to find out about this person’s backstory, or the reasoning for the murder. Doesn’t the satisfaction of a murder mystery lay in knowing why a killer did what he did? We are deprived an origin story, the ultimate mystery, just as we were in In the Woods. Tana French is a tease.
The Likeness has joined the ranks of my favorite books. I’m not giving it five Goodreads stars because of the above qualms, but it’s a five in my heart. I miss reading this book and wish I had it to read over again. Your turn; go read it.