The Likeness, by Tana French

The LikenessIn The Likeness, by Tana French, we meet up with Cassie Maddox again, this time without her former police partner Rob Ryan by her side.

The body of a murder victim has been discovered in the ruins of an old cottage in a village outside Dublin. Not only is the woman Cassie’s virtual twin but the police discover the victim has been going by the name of Lexie Madison, an identity which the police had created for its drug squad years ago, and an identity which Cassie had used during her stint as an undercover officer.

With some trepidation, Cassie agrees to assume this old identity again, and go undercover as Lexie Madison. As Lexie, Cassie steps into the world of a Trinity College graduate student rooming with four other students in an old house close by the cottage in which the victim’s body was discovered.

I had enjoyed Tana French’s first novel, In the Woods, despite not liking the ending very much, so I’d been looking forward to The Likeness.

But when I finally got a hold of a copy from my local library, I found it difficult to get into the book. I kept reading a bit, and then putting it down and not coming back to it for days. I ended up having to renew the book for the maximum number of renewals, and the main reason I finished it was because, going into the last third of the book, I’d run out of renewals and knew that if I didn’t finish it then, I probably wouldn’t be likely to finish it anytime in the near future.

Tana French writes beautifully and eloquently – her writing was one of the things I really enjoyed about In The Woods. But when I finally put down The Likeness for the last time, I found I hadn’t liked it nearly as much as I’d enjoyed In The Woods.

I finally realized why the other day, and, as it turns out, it has everything to do with me, the reader, and nothing to do with the book itself.

You see, I’d picked up The Likeness anticipating a mystery, but the mystery itself isn’t really the draw of the book. The book’s appeal lies in French’s writing, and in her depictions of the many flawed characters who populate The Likeness.

So what happened was this: I expected a mystery, and I kept expecting a mystery. The mystery itself is, of course, an important part of the book, as without it, Cassie wouldn’t be living the tense life of an undercover police officer, surrounded by murder suspects. But I’m not so certain that the mystery itself was the point of the book.

I also tend to favor more of a clear line between good and evil in the mysteries I read, so that, at some point during the narrative, there is a specific  intent to cause serious harm to someone else. The murderer in In The Woods, for example, is a chilling adversary. This isn’t something that happens, however, in The Likeness.

At some point during my reading of the book, I probably should have shifted my expectations – but for some reason, I didn’t. And so I didn’t find it a very satisfying read.

I should have read The Likeness as a work of general fiction that uses a mystery as a device to bring readers deep into the lives of the four unusual people who are Lexie Madison’s roommates. I think it would have worked out to be a far better read for me if I’d approached it with these expectations.

So there you go. The Likeness is a well-written book featuring a cast of flawed and compelling characters. But I went into it with the wrong expectations – the mystery in The Likeness isn’t the sharp, suspenseful mystery (or mysteries, some would say) that drove the plot in In The Woods. So I wasn’t nearly as enthralled with it as I was with In The Woods, even considering that book’s somewhat unsatisfactory ending.

If you go into this book with the right expectations, though, I suspect you’ll enjoy it more than I did.

Where to buy The Likeness:

U.S. ( | Indiebound | Canada (Chapters) | UK (

Book details: published by Viking Adult, 2008, hardcover, 480 pages

26 thoughts on “The Likeness, by Tana French

  1. Margot Kinberg

    How interesting that you saw the book like that; it’s probably a very helpful way to think about the book since, as you say, it’s not a mystery in the traditional sense of it. Still, I got lost in the characters and found it a compelling read. I actually mention it in my own latest blog post – coincidence, isn’t it?
    .-= Margot Kinberg´s last blog ..Identity Crisis =-.

    1. Belle

      I think so much of my experience was based on my reading mood during the several weeks it took me to get through this book. As you say, it’s not a mystery in the traditional sense, and I think if I’d been able to get out of that “in the mood for a mystery” I would have enjoyed it much more. It is quite the coincidence, too, that we both posted about the book at the same time!

  2. Bernadette in Australia

    Sorry to hear you didn’t enjoy it. A friend of mine has also read it after we both read IN THE WOODS and loved that and she said that she too had trouble getting into it although she didn’t articulate her reasons as well as you’ve done. I can’t decide if I will give it a go or not – probably not for a while anyway as I have so much else to read that is really calling me :)
    .-= Bernadette in Australia´s last blog ..Review: Sworn to Silence by Linda Castillo =-.

    1. Belle

      So glad to hear I’m not the only one! I know it’s garnered a lot of praise, and probably deservedly so – it just wasn’t suiting my mystery mood.

      It took me a while to get down to writing this review – I finished the book back in October – and it was because I needed to figure out exactly what threw me off! The writing is very good, much like in In The Woods, so it was quite a puzzle at first why I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had her first book. But if you’re in the mood for a more literary, psychological character study, this would make a good read.

    1. Belle

      Good point, Jill – thanks for catching that. I definitely wasn’t expressing what I meant very well.

      I actually do prefer complex characters in a mystery as well – it’s why I feel there’s a time and place for the “cozy” but usually, I like the deeper, more intricate mysteries.

      I’ve gone back and revised the review so that the sentence now reads: “I also tend to favor more of a clear line between good and evil in the mysteries I read, so that, at some point during the narrative, there is a specific intent to cause serious harm to someone else.” This specific intent to harm is something I do expect in a mystery, and that’s what I really meant when I said I enjoyed a clearer line between good and evil in my mysteries.

  3. Jemi Fraser

    It’s funny how we often have expectations going in to a book. I’ve been surprised a few times – sometimes for the good and sometimes not. I haven’t read this author yet, I’ll have to check out the first one at the very least!
    .-= Jemi Fraser´s last blog ..The First Spark =-.

    1. Belle

      I really enjoyed the first one (although be prepared that the ending isn’t wholly satisfactory, as one important part of the book remains unresolved). If you do get a chance to read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

  4. Care

    Is it OK that I only read the first and last sentences of this post? – I really hope to read this book and usually skip reviews when I have the book in house. Not that I will get around to it soon. Anyway. I was here. :)
    .-= Care´s last blog ..Books in My Future =-.

    1. Belle

      I think you’ll like In the Woods, Kathy. And I think if you don’t look at The Likeness as being a traditional suspense/mystery, you’ll probably really enjoy The Likeness, too!

    1. Belle

      I really enjoyed In The Woods. I raced through that novel, and the camaraderie between Cassie and Rob was really enjoyable. I think you’ll like it (except maybe the ending, because one thing does remain unresolved).

  5. Meg

    I’m super interested in Tana French — I think I’m going to add Into The Woods to my wishlist! I’ve seen several reviews lately and had forgotten how much I once wanted to read it, haha… I like a clear line between hero and villain in my books, too, so I imagine I’d share your feelings about The Likeness. I’ll start with the first one and see how I feel after that! :) Great, honest review!
    .-= Meg´s last blog ..Book review: ‘The House On Tradd Street’ by Karen White =-.

    1. Belle

      Thanks, Meg! I really enjoyed In The Woods and would love to hear what you think of it. I was disappointed a bit with the ending, but when I think back to the book, what I remember most is the way French depicted the relationship between Cassie and Rob.

  6. Nicole

    That’s a great distinction to make. I though that French corrected a lot of what I thought were her weaker points from In The Woods in The Likeness, and even though it was just as long, if not longer, I thought it was a much tighter book. But I did love the story and the characters in The Likeness. I liked the non-traditional mystery as well.
    .-= Nicole´s last blog ..Literary Feasts: Heaven to Betsy, by Maud Hart Lovelace =-.

    1. Belle

      I know I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I stopped thinking of it as a mystery. But even though I wasn’t in the right mood for this one, I will definitely be reading more of French’s work – she writes so well.

  7. softdrink

    I think that’s why I ended up liking this one way more than In the Woods…there was no mystery. For me, it was more of a psychological/mind games type of book. And I love the fact that Cassie got caught up in everyone’s lives, despite the fact that she was investigating them.
    .-= softdrink´s last blog ..Tell Me Something True =-.

    1. Belle

      The one good thing is, I’ll be making sure I’m in a different reading mood when I pick up whatever book French publishes next. I do enjoy her writing, and if I’d been in a different reading mood, this one would have gone over much better for me.

  8. barefooted

    Nice to find a discussion of Tana French. I happened upon In The Woods quite by accident and absolutely fell in love with the writer. I do not think I have ever been so enamored with anyone’s writing in the way I responded to hers. The descriptive words that she used and the ways in which she used them gave a rush to all of my senses. I found myself not being able to imagine how she had the talent to put together such lyrical combinations of ordinary and unexpected words which painted such brilliant pictures for the reader. I was searching for a book that would not let me put it down and I surely found it.

    Most often I find that a good mystery plot even with a very simple writing style can hold my attention and keep me in one spot until I finish it. However, it only satisfies part of my yearning for a good read. Or sometimes a writer will drift off into such “space filling” descriptions that are flat and colorless and very often have absolutely nothing to do with anything that I cannot make myself trudge through the work no matter how good the plot seems to be. I find that to be a sad waste. However, with French I feel as if I have been intrigued enough to keep me wanting more, and entertained and fulfilled as if I have also been to the museum, the ballet and the symphony along the way—and perhaps even a philosophy lecture in reading The Likeness, as I found myself pulling some quotes from her second book.

    I could not wait to read The Likeness and was almost as pleased as with the first book. I did not enjoy the mystery quite as much, but realized that she could probably write about anything and I would still feel the same way about her as an author. I also tore through that work until I got to the end and found myself only wanting to read a page a day since I knew it was her last novel. I even found a website where I could post a plea for her to continue her writing. My conflicts being fearful that her work might become mechanized and not hold the same level of mastery vs. my longing to continue experiencing her writing. I am excitedly awaiting Faithful Place.

  9. Pingback: Tana French’s “The Likeness” | nadezhdaseiler

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