To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Laura Lippman’s “To the Power of Three” is advertised on the cover as a “novel of suspense”. Indeed. We know who pulled the trigger from the very beginning, but we do not know why and exactly how. Finding the answer to these questions provides sustained suspense throughout the book. However, to me, the suspense aspect is not the main reason that the novel is worth reading. I find the psychological and sociological observations of status structures in school quite interesting.
We follow the friendship of three girls from Baltimore suburbs, Kat, Perri, and Josie, from the third grade to just before the high-school graduation when the killing happens, and when the current-time, police procedural plot begins. The past events are shown in long narrative flashbacks, in which Ms. Lippman develops psychological portraits of the girls and depicts the dynamics of social power hierarchies among female students.
The observations how girls construct their identities while growing up and trying to fit into the existing social status structures and to become “someone who belongs” are insightful and well presented. Kat, Perri, and Josie do not follow the school “divas” (the group at the top of the female hierarchy of students). They do not join the group of “skeezer girls”, who remain sort of outside the school mainstream. The three girls carve their own niche using their “power of three”. It is also fascinating to observe how the social structures and the mechanisms of “belonging to a group” change with age.
Ms. Lippman provides a refreshingly scathing description of the funeral ceremony that is perceived by the students as a fabulously exciting extracurricular event; most of them are hard at work trying to replicate the grieving behaviors seen on TV. We also learn the immense value of having connections to current traumatic events. Having an uncle whose friend’s brother-in-law has died on September 11 automatically elevates one’s social status at school. Despite these sharp observations, the author still shows lots of compassion for most characters.
Unfortunately, various literary clichés are present in the novel, and the portrayal of the cops is quite formulaic. Yet, the denouement is not disappointing if a little implausible, and the author delivers on the promise building since the beginning of this solid, readable book.
Three and a half stars.
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