Family in the 21st century is a fluid and flexible thing. Extended families tend not to live as closely as they once did, and traditional marriage has been changing ever since the sexual revolution and the women's movement. Even biological progeny is no longer a definer of family-egg donors, sperm donors, surrogates, and adoption have blurred the lines that connects people to each other. More and more people are choosing to define their families not by those that are related by blood, but those that are related by affinity.
That idea is taken to the extreme in Tana French's latest book, The Likeness. Detective Cassie Maddox is drawn into a rather unusual undercover mission. A woman who looks exactly like her, using the alias Lexie Madison that Cassie once created for a different undercover operation, is murdered. In order to discover the killer, Cassie has to go undercover again, this time as her doppelganger, infiltrating the group of friends that have been living together in a large manor house in the Irish countryside. While there she is drawn into what seems to be the idyllic friendship between the five housemates. So alluring is the love and support that they show for each other she considers throwing her own life aside in favor of living her life as her double forever. As time goes on, however, she begins to sense the lies and secrets that truly bind the housemates together.
Tana French does an excellent job of showing just how attractive the created family of the housemates is. I found myself at various times during the book wishing that I had a group of friends as close and comfortable with each other as these five. The descriptions of long meals, games of cards, intense discussions of literature and culture, lazy afternoons spent in the garden, and reading in companionable silence in the warm glow of ancient light fixtures in a grand old manor called Whitethorn House were attractive to me in many ways. For some reason, adults of a certain age stop being intensely physically and emotionally close with our friends. Some of us transfer those feelings to a partner, but for many of us we will never again have relationships as intense as when we were young. When I watch the youth in my youth group and the way they are with each other, I often wonder what happens to us as we get older that causes us to put up walls between ourselves and our friends. The friends in this book had intentionally created a family unit where those walls didn't exist. Their bonds came with a price-the loss of their pasts, the loss of their identity except how it related to the group-but for varying reasons they all seemed willing to pay it.
OK, having finished the book and been away from it for a day or so I now see how creepy it all really was, at least in the fictional world French created. Perhaps that is the meaning that French wants us to take away from their story. What they had was beautiful-but only when it was protected from the pressures of what the rest of us call the real world. That kind of ideal love, where each individual puts his or her own needs as a distant second to the needs of the group, is not possible in the world outside. But in the midst of reading this novel I was totally sucked into the alternate reality that was Cassie's Ireland and Lexie's Whitethorn House, and isn't that the point of good fiction?