Pros: A complex murder mystery involving a remarkable web of personalities
Cons: Not really the “suspense” the book cover would have us believe; most of these characters are seriously non-likable
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Kat, Perri, and Josie have been inseparable friends since third grade. They had their own place largely outside the school’s clique-based structure. Everyone loved Kat for her beauty and kindness. Josie is an athletic cheerleader. And Perri’s the sharp-witted theater geek. They live in a well-to-do suburb and their families can afford good schools, special athletics programs, and more. But as the end of their senior year draws close, one of them brings a gun to school. One girl ends up dead. One gets shot in the foot. And one is in critical condition after apparently blowing half of her face off. Only the three of them knew what really happened in the school bathroom that morning, only one girl is capable of saying, and she’s sticking to a story that doesn’t quite hold water. Now everyone’s looking for answers: the police, who can’t let go of the pieces that don’t add up; the father of the dead girl, who wants someone to blame; and the parents of the girl who’s still in critical condition, because they want some proof, any proof, that it might not have been her terrible act that caused all of this tragedy.
Laura Lippman’s To the Power of Three is an extremely powerful book that examines all of the screwed-up emotions and interactions that take place in the lives of everyday teenagers, whether rich or poor, nice or mean, smart or not. Its true strength lies in its examination of all the characters, families, and personalities in a community, and how they can lift each other up and tear each other apart. Primarily the latter.
It’s too bad this book is billed as a suspense novel on the cover, because it really isn’t, which means it might be a let-down to some folks (certainly it isn’t what the cover led me to believe). This might make it a bad suspense novel, but it certainly doesn’t make it a bad novel, and if you have the right expectations for it you can enjoy it for what it truly is. (This is why publishers should not put only semi-related or semi-true things on the cover of a book—someone who goes in looking for a suspense novel might not be able to see past the fact that it isn’t a good suspense novel to the fact that it’s something else fantastic.)
The tale unwinds slowly as we explore all three girls’ lives, families, and interrelationships. It can be a little tricky to keep track of all the players, but the characters are individualistic enough that it isn’t that bad. It can be hard to truly like much of anyone in this book, which I guess is a bit painfully realistic; we do, after all, get to see all of their human failings. I think most readers will find people from their own lives reflected here, and the story opens up so many questions about how we raise our children. Thankfully the author doesn’t try to pretend that there are any easy answers. While she seems to single out certain approaches as producing messed-up kids/adults, she doesn’t pretend that there are any solutions from other quarters that magically produce great kids. I think you can find examples of nearly every major parenting style in here, and pretty much all of them have produced kids that are… well, human. Imperfect. Capable of hurting those around them.
The question of “whodunit” has some unusual answers, ones I didn’t expect in how they’re carried off, and in some ways the last parts of the book raise more questions than they answer. It’s fascinating, and quite good, if that’s the sort of character-oriented book you’re in the mood for. So as long as you’re looking for a slow-to-unwind character mystery rather than “suspense”, and you don’t mind some very realistic and often unlikable characters, then you could definitely find To the Power of Three to be a great read.