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Onyx reviews: Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 5/6/2017

For the first time, Dennis Lehane presents a novel with a female protagonist. He doesn't do so half-heartedly: he delves into her entire life, from her childhood through to a critical moment when she is forced to confront a shocking reality and decide who exactly she wishes to be. 

The book draws its title from the song "Since I Fell for You," written by one-hit wonder Lenny Welch and covered by dozens upon dozens of other performers. As a character reflects, it's not a love song so much as a loss song, "the lament of someone trapped in a hopeless addiction to a heartless lover who will, there is no doubt, ultimately destroy him." The song reappears, like a leitmotif, throughout the text, although it disguises one of the book's greatest mysteries.

If not for a prologue in which thirty-seven-year-old Rachel Childs shoots her husband dead while on a boat in Boston Harbor, Since We Fell might seem like a completely different novel for a substantial fraction of its length. The first quarter of the novel details the years between 1977 and 2010. Much of the plot here pertains to her quest to find out who her father is. Although she has vague memories of the man from her early childhood before he left them, all she knows is that his name is James and that he was an instructor at a local college.

Rachel's controlling, toxic and manipulative mother found excuses to delay telling her about her father, and then a fatal accident stole any chance that the two would ever have that discussion. By then, Rachel was 21, attending college. She's left well-enough off to hire a private investigator named Brian Delacroix to track down James. He dissuades her, primarily because she doesn't have enough information and he he doesn't want to waste her money. She will encounter Brian again off and on in subsequent years. She's fascinated by him at times and put off or disappointed in him at others.

Her career trajectory is rapid and crushing. After grad school, she goes to work for the Boston Globe, migrates to a local TV station, where she rises rapidly through the ranks until she comes to the notice of a producer (who becomes her first husband) who helps get her big chance with the "Big Six" networks in New York. She covers the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti but is so affected by the tragedy that her downbeat stories dismay her editors stateside. Despite being given a second chance, she has an on-air meltdown that goes viral, ending her career in journalism and, by the same token, her marriage.

The events of the first section leave Rachel in a vulnerable position. Her quest to find her father—and, by proxy, her own identity—has successes and setbacks, but she suffers abandonment issues and resentment toward her mother. Already prone to anxiety attacks, her public humiliation causes her to suffer self-doubt and agoraphobia. For long stretches she refuses to leave her apartment except during times when she's unlikely to encounter many people. Then she meets Brian, the former detective, again, and they embark on a whirlwind romance. He's the perfect man for her, patient and loving, coaxing her out of her self-imposed exile from society. She's working on a book about her experiences in Haiti, and is mostly happy. Still, she experiences self-doubt and self-recrimination, and has the occasional hallucination.

Then her world rapidly falls apart once more. She suffers a cataclysmic loss of faith and trust in her second husband. She comes to believe that he isn't traveling abroad on business trips when he says he is, even though he sends her a selfie from his overseas hotel to assuage her doubts. Is she paranoid, or are her suspicions justified? She's seen things that weren't there before, so by this point in the book, readers will know enough about her history to have doubts.

From this point onward, a little over halfway through the book, Since We Fell becomes a full-tilt thriller. Rachel is forced to grapple with and overcome her carefully constructed but fragile version of her own identity when she is faced with a monumental fraud that has been perpetrated against her. How can someone who is overwhelmed by crowds prevail under conditions of high stress and mortal danger? That seems to be the question Lehane is asking in this novel. It takes him a while to get there, but the preliminary matter is all necessary to completely familiarize readers with Rachel's nature. The extended setup makes what follows much more effective and harrowing. 

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