Entertainment

Book review: Dennis Lehane's 'Since We Fell' feels like a movie script

Posted May 23

SINCE WE FELL," by Dennis Lehane, Ecco, $27.99, 432 pages (f)

Since 1998, Dennis Lehane has been writing books that turn into movies. “Mystic River” (2003), “Gone Baby Gone” (2007) and “Shutter Island” (2010) have all done well on the big screen and at the box office, and the author’s latest novel, “Since We Fell,” is poised to take the same route. In October 2015, DreamWorks studio acquired the rights to Lehane’s future text, and this time, the deal included Lehane adapting the screenplay himself.

Which leads interested individuals to ask a question: At this point in his career, is Lehane writing a book or is he writing a screenplay? Based on the shortcuts he takes with this novel, Lehane makes his multitasking obvious.

The story centers on Sarah Childs, raised an only child by her simultaneously cold and empowering mother. As this confused description of her mother suggests, Sarah is packed with contradictions: needy then independent, manic then stoic, cautious then reckless. Unfortunately, Lehane doesn’t craft her subtly enough to be complex, so his polarizing presentation makes it difficult to know if we want Sarah to succeed or fail. Instead, she becomes simply the character to which this jetpack story is strapped, and readers hold onto her only because Lehane doesn’t offer us anyone else.

That's too bad, because Lehane’s secondary characters give readers hints of far more interesting stories tucked away in his storyteller’s quiver: a best friend’s husband’s wife, a mother’s ex-boyfriend, an old friend from college. Each of these offer snippets of back stories more tantalizing than the history Lehane provides for Sarah.

As with most of Lehane’s books, "Since We Fell" is set in his native Boston, with distracting jaunts to Maine, Manhattan, the college towns of western Massachusetts, and even Haiti. Lehane sets scenes handily — one of his strengths that made ”Mystic River”so compelling — and usually allows various Boston neighborhoods to act as characters in the plot. In this novel, however, Lehane makes most of the towns, Boston included, mere backdrops. Perhaps he does this to reinforce Sarah’s unmoored, solitary nature. Alone, however, does not equal boring, and Lehane’s lackluster representation of a sparkling city is disappointing, especially as he’s made Boston shine brilliantly in previous stories.

While Lehane does keep his story moving — another of his trademarks — his subplots in “Since We Fell” prove to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Sarah’s quest to find her father is an unsatisfying side trip. Her marriage to her co-worker feels pointless (except all he teaches her about boats, helpful information as the story progresses). Her breakdown after working in Haiti seems more a result of poor timing than a personal crisis. Because Lehane has underdeveloped Sarah as a character, these side stories become increasingly frustrating, their results distracting from the plot rather than augmenting it.

Yet for all of these literary complaints, “Since We Fell” certainly reads like a good movie; it’s quick and entertaining with plenty of intrigue. Readers will want to know what happens next, hoping with every chapter for a happy ending. But Lehane’s bland treatments of the locale, his varyingly sympathetic characters and his red herring side plots do not place “Since We Fell” among the author’s best work. This story is an easily forgettable good time; let's hope the film is better.

"Since We Fell" contains mature themes and strong language. It includes scenes of sexual content that are not graphically described.

Amanda Olson is a former adjunct faculty member of the Professional Writing Programs at Brigham Young University, Northeastern University, and the University of Maryland, College Park. EMAIL: alc.olson@gmail.com

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