I have mixed feelings about this book. I began reading it immediately after finishing French's stellar debut novel, the award-winning In the Woods (which I raved about here), and while in The Likeness the initial premise is intriguing and a little out of left-field for the genre, it quickly devolved into something tedious and slow.
While In the Woods did take its time and was a “slow-burn” story (for lack of a better term), it was still well told, interesting from start to finish, and read like a detective story with some literary flair. The Likeness reads more like a tense family drama or—sad, but true—something a step or two up from a soap opera. I don't know if this says anything of the book's quality, but I read In the Woods in a week; The Likeness took me nearly a month. I knew I wanted to finish it, but the prospect was not an exciting one. It was hard to want to pick it back up and keep going.
It begins with Cassie Maddox (co-star of In the Woods and one of my favorite characters from that novel) being called to a crime scene even though she had transferred out of Murder six months prior and was working in Domestic Violence at the time. She quickly realizes the reason for the call because the dead body lying on the cold floor of an abandoned cottage is hers—or at least, it looks exactly like her (thus the title). What ensues next is Cassie taking on the identity of the dead young woman in an attempt to track down her killer. This involves Cassie moving in with four college students in Whitethorn House, a dilapidated mansion in Glenskehy and the former home of the dead woman.
Cassie's period living with these students—Daniel, Justin, Rafe, and Abby—takes up the rest of the novel, and it is here where my comparison to a soap opera comes in. While this part of the book is still technically well written with strong characters and decent dialogue, very little of it feels like an investigation, which left me as the reader somewhat bewildered. To go from one book that is very much a detective story into its direct sequel and get a drama with a circumstantial mystery thrown in felt off-kilter somehow.
It probably sounds as if I'm bashing the book so far. Well, I said at the start that I had mixed feelings about this one, and here's why: I cannot say that, overall, it was a bad book, just a weird one. I can say that, even though it took some extra effort, I am glad I finished it, and by the end felt that the experience had actually been a pretty good one. It was just so wholly different than its predecessor that it almost felt like the two did not belong together at all—even though The Likeness intimately intertwines with people and events from In the Woods. The whole doppelganger thing was a bit of a stretch, and even though seeing it play out was somewhat fun, it felt like the author was throwing in a dash of fantasy or sci-fi in an otherwise straight-faced series.
But here's the thing: wacky as the concept was, French made me believe it. At no point did her commitment to the premise falter, and even though this sort of thing probably would not ever happen in real life, she executed every aspect with as much reality as possible, and it held up pretty well.
I see that other reviewers have complained about the book's length and I can't disagree. I mentioned it took me a while to get through this one and that is at least partly why. There is an enormous chunk of the book where Cassie is just hanging out with her college roommates—drinking and smoking a lot, playing games, having picnics, listening to records, fixing up their house—and while this section solidifies the reader's idea of who each of these people are as characters, it simply isn't very interesting to sit through. Breakthroughs in the case come few and far between, and isn't that the main reason we read books like this one?
So, like I said: mixed feelings. The Likeness is not great, but it's also not terrible. It's a strange little book that feels like a distant cousin to In the Woods as opposed to a sister or brother. For folks who liked In the Woods as much as I did, I'd say this one is a toss-up. You might love it, or you might be totally thrown off by it. I'm somewhere in between those two. If you're willing to give the author a little leeway, then there's probably a nugget of enjoyment to be found.