Review: Lies She Told by Cate Holahan

Lies She Told by Cate Holahan is an electrifying story of love and deceit where parts of a crime writer's latest novel start to blend with things happening in her real life, proving that truth can sometimes be darker than fiction. 

It’s been awhile since crime writer Liza Cole has had a bestseller, and now she has a great idea—but there are a couple snags in her personal life making writing difficult. Her husband’s best friend and law partner has disappeared, last seen by the East River. Fertility issues were already making it hard to have a baby, and now her husband is too distracted by the investigation into his best friend’s disappearance to spend time with her. Liza finds solace and escape in the one thing that has always worked for her: writing. 

She creates a new story about Beth. Beth is a new mother whose lawyer husband is cheating on her with a co-worker. In a fit of rage, Beth kills her husband’s mistress and dumps her … in the East River. 

There are layers upon layers to unpack in Lies She Told—even the title conveys that someone, somewhere, is lying. Told in alternating chapters, Cate Holahan’s novel bounces between the real-life Liza and the fictional Beth. But, as the story progresses, it becomes harder and harder to differentiate between the two. Is Liza just using the world around her as inspiration? Or is there something far more sinister present in her “fiction”?

When we first meet Liza, she’s struggling to find an idea that is captivating and having a tough time convincing her editor, Trevor, that her newest idea—a woman who kills the mistress of her cheating husband—is worth the time it’ll take to write it. Liza’s last novel was a bust. Trevor thinks this new idea is pretty bland. He thinks it needs some extra … something

“How about something with psychiatrists? Does he love her or is he messing with her mind?” 

I could name four books involving twisted therapists that graced the bestseller lists in the past two years. But doing so would just support Trevor’s suggestion. He isn’t claiming that his idea is original, only that it’s “on trend.” Trends sell, whether writers like them or not. 

Trevor mistakes my silence as serious consideration. “Think Hannibal Lecter without the horror. The sociopathic doctor meets a young Clarice and she falls—”

“I don’t know, Trev. Transference? Is that—”

“Trans?” He wrinkles his nose, offended by my attempt to slip esoteric knowledge into our conversation. Trever often laments this about me. He complains that I bog down my books with details: how a gun shoots, how police detect trace amounts of blood, DNA lingo fit for a biologist. For Accused Woman, I attended a week-long writer’s workshop at the police academy in Queens so I could get down every detail of the way a gun discharges and how detective investigate. I even bought my own handgun: a Ruger SR22, touted by experts as the most affordable semiautomatic for women. My aim is horrible. 

“Transference happens when a person projects unresolved feelings about their past onto people in their present, like a patient transferring romantic emotions to their psychi—”

Trevor’s full lips press flat against his teeth. 

“It’s not important. Forget it.” My voice sounds small.

Hm. It’s not important. Forget it.

Forgetting it is the last thing the reader should do. 

Transference and an author’s attention to psychological detail—both the fictional main character, author Liza, and Holahan, the real author of Lies She Told—are incredibly important to this novel. The next chapter in this book jumps to Beth, who is going through something eerily similar to Liza’s real life. The question becomes: Did Liza kill someone, as Beth does in her novel?

The tangled threads of fact and fiction are complicated even more by the question of memory. Liza seems to be forgetting things—presumably because of the fertility treatments she’s undergoing. And it goes further than misplaced keys. That Ruger SR22 she got for research? It’s missing, right along with her husband’s law partner.

The first-person narratives add to the sense of mystery. Is this new “novel” actually a confession? Or is it repressed memory surfacing? Or is Beth simply a way to transfer what Liza is thinking and feeling—a “transference” to an imaginary person, if you will.

I drum my fingers on the black keys, not hard enough to type anything. What will be my opening line this time? For a suspense writer, even one who fills her pages with licentious liaisons, the first sentence of every chapter is like an AA meeting. It demands the immediate confession of a problem by a specific someone. My name is Liza and I’m a … I obviously know Beth’s issue, though I don’t yet know how to solve it. We’ll figure it out together, two friends fumbling toward a solution. My main characters are more extensions of my social circle than figments of my imagination. Each is fleshed out with the characteristics of myself or my loved ones, endowed with unwritten pasts stitched together from my own experiences and the secrets of those closest to me. These embezzled backstories dictate my characters actions as much as my own personal history decides my emotional responses. I don’t invent my characters. I steal them from my surroundings. To be a writer is to be a life thief. Every day, I rob myself blind. 

The psychological play happening between Liza, her fictional creations, and the mystery surrounding them all is enough to keep readers busy for hours. (And I haven’t even touched on the metafictional aspects of a mystery novelist, Holahan, writing about a mystery novelist, Liza, writing about a murderer, Beth, who may be a stand-in for the fictional mystery novelist. Lies She Told is a flat-out writing feat.)

I really hope Holahan hasn’t killed anyone in real life. But, so far, the only similarities I’ve discovered between Holahan and her characters is that she’s a) a writer and b) a researcher. If you’d like to know more about Holahan’s research, she’s posted a taste of her memory research here.


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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 MagazineShimmerSkive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing, feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.

Read all posts by Jenny Maloney for Criminal Element.


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