Isaacs, Susan. Lily White.

NY: HarperCollins, 1996.

Isaacs has never really hit the big time as a novelist, though every one of her dozen-plus novels has made the New York Times best seller list, and — in my opinion — she has never produced less than a very good story. But this one may be her best. Lee White is a middle-aged Long Island criminal defense attorney (and ex-assistant DA) with a client she can’t quite figure out. Norman Torkelson, a talented con man who has had a long and reasonably successful career stealing the life savings of lonely women, is awaiting trial for the strangulation of his latest scam victim.

He insists he’s innocent and Lee — even with years of experience in being lied to by clients — tends to believe him, because he has no history of violent behavior and no motive that she can discover. All he had to do was take the money and run, as he always had done. Norman also has a girlfriend named Mary, who is rather sweet as well as stunningly beautiful, . . . and dumb and self-involved and jealous and selfish. And her hands are nearly as big and strong as Norman’s. Is the love-addled Norman covering for her? Naturally, it’s a great deal more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, in alternating sections, a third-person omniscient narrator — which is an interesting tactic on Isaacs’s part — begins telling us about how Lee came to be the person she is, starting with her grandparents (lower middle class Jewish on her father’s side, wealthy Manhattan Protestant on her mother’s) and continuing with her father’s rise in the New York fur business to self-made millionaire. There’s her down-to-earth Grandma Bella, and her high-maintenance little sister, and her father who yearns to be accepted as the old-money WASP he’ll never be. And then there’s Jazz, literally the boy next door, whom she has had the hots for since she was fifteen. And there’s the “man in her life,” who turns out not to be who the reader thinks he’s going to be, but he’s definitely a Good Guy. The story unreels rather slowly but with considerable depth, painting skillful generational portraits, giving you some characters you’ll root for, some you’ll cringe at, and others you’ll despise, but all of them are fully developed and interesting. A book to immerse yourself in.


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