Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Monday, March 6, 2017

Monday, March 6, 2017: Maximum Shelf: Since We Fell

Ecco Press: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Ecco Press: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Ecco Press: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Ecco Press: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell

by Dennis Lehane

After wrapping up his historical trilogy featuring Joe Coughlin, Dennis Lehane returns to modern times with a new protagonist in the engrossing psychological thriller Since We Fell.

As a TV news reporter, Rachel Childs is always digging for truth. But she started doing that long before she embarked on her career. For most of her life, Rachel has been searching for her father. All she can remember about him is that his name was James and he left before Rachel was three years old. Her mother, Elizabeth, said to him, "If you go out that door, I will expunge you." And expunge him she did, not only from her life, but from Rachel's as well. "He’s gone.... Now we won't speak of him again," Elizabeth says. But of course, questions linger for Rachel.

Part one of Since We Fell skillfully details Rachel's childhood and early adulthood as she strives to establish her identity in the shadow of her famous-author mother, and to track down her absent father. The paucity of information about his identity makes her search difficult enough, but her quest becomes almost impossible when her mother dies while Rachel is in college. "Elizabeth may have been unwilling to provide that answer [regarding the identity of Rachel's father], but she had unquestionably been in possession of it. Now, possibly no one was."

Nevertheless, Rachel persists, and Lehane expertly ensures that readers stay with her. After a private investigator refuses to take her case, Rachel's own search takes her in unexpected directions. She meets people who may or may not be related to her by blood, but with whom she forms relationships that might be considered familial. She has a blooming career. She gets married. Does she finally have the life she's always wanted? Readers familiar with Lehane's work will know his characters wouldn't have it that easy.

In part two of Since We Fell, Rachel has had a major career setback after a disastrous on-air incident and is now almost a shut-in, suffering from panic attacks. The one bright note is her incredibly supportive husband, who tells her: "We live in a world of disposable memory. Nothing's built to last, not even shame." She can't believe her luck, having such an understanding spouse. Until one day, she sees something that throws into question everything she knows about him. Her reporter's instincts start buzzing. But how can she start investigating her own husband without his knowledge--and without leaving the house?

Rachel fights through her fear and ventures into the world in the final third of the book. The action kicks into high gear as Rachel gets caught up in life-threatening situations while she tries to find out who her husband really is and what dangerous game he's playing. There's also the possibility her fragile mind is playing tricks on her. As with Lehane's Shutter Island, readers will at times wonder what's real or imaginary, sane vs. paranoid.

But Lehane isn't retreading familiar territory. Since We Fell is different from anything he's done. His protagonist this time around is a well-educated, white-collar woman instead of a working-class male. The author has no trouble depicting her complex inner life, however, slipping smoothly into her psyche as she searches for her father and, more importantly, a place where she belongs in the world. When she encounters one dead end after another, her crushing disappointment resonates. Her panic attacks are viscerally described, such as in this scene while she's driving: "The other cars raced and revved and swarmed. They engulfed her, stabbing at the air, surging and stabbing and breaking, red taillights flashing like furious eyes."

Rachel isn't the only woman Lehane draws with distinction. Elizabeth is such a towering character, her presence looms large even after her death. Her past is full of mysteries perhaps deserving a book of their own.

Lehane is also very good at showing instead of telling. Witness this exchange between Rachel and her first husband before she leaves to cover a story in Haiti: " 'I’ll miss you.' She couldn't wait to get on the plane. 'Miss you too,' he said as he stared into the refrigerator."

Since We Fell (a riff on the title of the classic song "Since I Fell for You" originally recorded by Lenny Welch) is like having two books for the price of one: the first part is a character study, with lyrical descriptions such as someone having the "sudden, uncertain smile of a man who had... been conditioned to ask for permission before he expressed joy." The second half is amped-up action thriller and the prose becomes razor sharp: a woman has skin "stretched so tight against her face it gave her the unfortunate look of someone who'd been struck by lightning during an orgasm."

Lehane guides readers through it all with an assured hand, keeping us in the dark but constantly engaged. While love does bring misery and pain, like the song says, Rachel also finds light in unexpected places. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

Ecco Press, $27.99, hardcover, 432p., 9780062129383, May 16, 2017

Ecco Press: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane: A New Point of View

photo: Gaby Gerster/Diogenes, Zurich

After writing bestsellers such as Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River, and Shutter Island--all adapted into hit movies--Dennis Lehane needs little introduction. His work has been translated into 30 languages. Before becoming a successful author and TV writer on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, Lehane held a variety of jobs--parking cars, waiting tables, and counseling abused children and the mentally disabled. Lehane was born and raised in Dorchester, Mass., and now lives in Los Angeles. His new novel is Since We Fell (Ecco, May 16, 2017)

It seems the only thing predictable about your career is that you always do something unpredictable. Since We Fell is different from anything you've written. The central POV is female, and Rachel and her family aren't working class.

After 20 years of writing mostly about guys, it was refreshing to step into a woman's perspective. And, yes, I decided to write about a bit more upscale world than I have before. Rachel comes from an intellectual family--her mother and father were both professors--but the damage they inflicted on her is just as brutal as the more direct forms of violence that happen in my other novels. And her journey (at least until she meets her second husband) is one of dislocation and isolation, of people abruptly leaving her life without a look back. In the first third of the book she's on a search for her paternity. After that search leads to a mental breakdown, her next journey is to reclaim herself, which is the main journey of the book.

Rachel's voice was so convincing, both as a woman and an individual with agoraphobia. How did you go about finding it? Did it come easily, and how did you know when it was right?

The voice mostly came easily. I did a pass after I was done to red-flag any areas where I thought Rachel could be sounding like a man or where I was seeing the scene through a pair of guy goggles. But there weren't too many moments like that, as luck would have it. I ran the manuscript past a few female friends and it passed muster with them, so I figured I was okay from there.

As for the agoraphobia, I did a tiny bit of research but hardly to a taxing level. Most of the hard work of the book centered around drilling down into the causes of Rachel's maladies. The gender-specific stuff and the particulars of how her panic attacks manifested themselves came out without too much struggle. 

Your recurring theme of family is present: biological vs. chosen. Has becoming a father yourself affected how you write about family and father-child relationships?

No how-to manual can prepare you for the depths of both love and fear that overtake you when you bring a child into the world. I mean, before you have kids, you sort of get it... but you don't, not really.

Since I've had children, I wrestle with the not terribly original terrors of not measuring up to what they need me to be, of failing them at crucial moments and, most of all, of what will happen to them if something happens to me before they reach adulthood. That last fear is clearly reflected in both the father-son relationship in my previous book, World Gone By, and the relationship Rachel has--or, more specifically, doesn't--with her own father(s) in Since We Fell.

Regarding movie rights, you've said you "sell to a studio through somebody," e.g., to Clint Eastwood who then approached Warner Bros. about Mystic River, not to WB directly.  DreamWorks bought Since We Fell; how did that come about?

In the case of Since We Fell, I broke all my usual rules. I'm writing the adaptation, for example, and I did sell directly to DreamWorks, although with the inclusion of three producers whose work I admire. I've been in L.A. now for almost four years, so the "studios" are not as faceless as they were when I lived in Boston; I know a lot of the top execs. So, it's a bit different from the days when I refused to sell to a studio because it felt like dropping the book into an ocean filled with unknowable but predatory creatures.

Tell us about your decision to write the screenplay, something you've said you never wanted to do with a novel.

Most times when I write a novel, the last thing I can see is the structure of it. I usually mosey on into my novels with a character or a line or two and just fumble around blindly for the light switch. And I rewrite a lot, usually in no particular sequence. So it's normally impossible for me to see the structural through-line. I leave that for readers and, yes, screenwriters who wish to adapt the book.

But with Since We Fell, the idea popped into my head, fully formed: What if an agoraphobic woman with the "perfect marriage" comes to believe her husband has a second life in another city? And the answers to why that husband might be lying and what was going on in the background and how Rachel was going to have to conquer her agoraphobia to solve the mystery--all of that came to me in a matter of days. So for the first time since Shutter Island, I started a book with the structure locked in place. That made it easy to see how to adapt it for film. And I seemed like the right guy for the job. For once.

Whom do you picture as Rachel?

I never picture who could play the roles. It's a recipe for disappointment--the actor you like might not be the director’s choice, or the studio's. Or she might not be available or too difficult to work with or a myriad of other considerations that are best left as the director's and studio's concerns, not mine.

You live in L.A. now. Has the city inspired you to write any L.A. noir?

No. You’d be jousting with giants there. [Raymond] Chandler, [John] Fante, [Nathanael] West, [Horace] McCoy, and [James] Ellroy--to name just five right off the top of my head. I don't see the point. I still have my little neck of the woods in Boston, the one place I feel confident that I know better than almost anyone. L.A. would take a lifetime to learn and I've spent that lifetime learning Boston. The L.A. literary landscape can get along great without any contributions from me.

You've written different genres and in different mediums. Is there something you'd like to tackle but haven't yet?

Two things: I'd like to do a straight-up chase novel someday, à la Three Days of the Condor, a film I love. And I'd like to do a purely naturalistic novel in which there are no big action sequences or even overtly big emotions. Something small and quiet.

What have you learned in the past 20+ years of your career that you wish you knew when you were starting out?

Nothing. Careers are often built because of what you don't know, what you're too ignorant to fear or too stupid to realize you shouldn't try. I never regret something I tried at and failed. I only regret things I never tried at all. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis

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