Let’s start by thinking about glamor. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (with the magnifying glass, yes), the word doesn’t enter English until late in the 18th century, when it basically means a spell. The contemporary definition offered by the OED is “A magical or fictitious beauty… a delusive or alluring charm.”
So glamor is by definition deceptive. And The Likeness dives right into that pool, insisting on both charm and delusion, which are naturally sides of the same mirror. The basic premise of the book involves doubling: Dublin detective Cassie Maddox, whom we met in In the Woods, is summoned to the ruins of a cottage outside of Dublin one morning to find her former Undercover boss Frank Mackey and her current boyfriend Sam O’Neill (of the Murder squad) hovering over a body. Sam is especially undone, because the body is a physical double for Cassie.
If you’re willing to buy that premise — and why wouldn’t you be, with Tana French in charge? — the rest of the plot is plausible. Frank wants to use the likeness to send Cassie back to the life of the murdered girl, Lexie Madison. Cassie’s got a reckless streak, and unresolved issues about loyalty, so she agrees. And what a menage she falls into! Here’s the opening line of The Likeness: “Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House.” Do you remember the opening line of Daphne duMaurier’s Rebecca? “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Tana French is absolutely setting you up here: you are supposed to be thinking for all 466 pages of this book about appearance and reality. Whitethorn House is as much a fantasy as Manderley was, and Cassie Maddox falls for it and all who dwell there. There’s Daniel March, the brilliant rakish owner of the crumbling 18th century mansion in the Irish countryside. Rafe, “the resident eye candy,” is English, trying to escape his boorish rich father. Justin, nervous and gay, Abby, plucky and practical, with a drug-addict mother — the five of them (with the late Lexie), all graduate students, have forged a new family. Cassie, orphaned young and never quite over it, falls deliriously into her deception. She becomes Lexie, and comes perilously close to losing herself in the spell these people cast.
Oh, there’s a lot going on here. You’ve got the Cinderella thing, as Cassie turns herself into the dead girl. You’ve got various sexual undercurrents: Lexie was pregnant when she died. You’ve got the glamor component: these five attractive young people living together in a grand house, creating their own witty, elegant civilization. Only one of them must have killed Lexie. And Cassie is wearing a wire, and none of it will end well.
I read The Likeness when it came out in 2008 and I’ve been hoarding it for a re-read ever since. The glamor thing gets me every time (see Rules of Civility), and French has given Cassie a literate, eloquent, sensual voice with a redeeming edge of irreverence. I loved every page of it, and as of today I’m counting down to the next go-round.