LIFE PENALTY by Joy Fielding

LIFE PENALTY

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KIRKUS REVIEW

When her six-year-old daughter is found raped and murdered, New Jersey housewife Gail Walton is understandably enraged, even unhinged. (In addition to the built-in anguish, Gail feels guilty because she was out shopping instead of waiting at home for her daughter's return from school.) So, when the police don't make much progress in the case, Gail vows to catch the killer herself--irrationally following a tiny non-clue to the slums of Newark, taking seedy hotel rooms and following men who fit the very vague description of the murder suspect. Meanwhile, her domestic life is a disaster: she recoils from sex with her patient husband, she's over-protective with her soon-alienated teenage daughter, she resents her sister's attempts to help, she sees a good therapist once but doesn't continue treatment. Eventually, after her spacey sleuthing sizzles, she becomes suicidal--purposely stepping on a lethal jellyfish while in Florida (where husband Jack has taken her as a last resort). Then, just before Gail does at last do away with herself. . . she gets word that her daughter's killer has been apprehended. But though the upcoming trial and a support therapy-group help Gail ""come to terms with her fury,"" there is ""still something missing""--something which can only be satisfied, apparently, by Gail's vengeance-killing of the convicted murderer, an act that's greeted by ""the sound of applause"" in the courtroom. On the one hand, then, this tacky exploitation-novel is a dubious Death Wish variant--complete with familiar rhetoric about the over-lenient criminal justice system. (""Haven't you heard?. . . You don't have any rights until you kill somebody."") On the other hand, however, Fielding seems to be portraying vigilante Gail as psychologically disturbed, damaged beyond repair by the murder--but this stab at clinical case-history is far too thin and unsophisticated to be convincing. And the result, without the suspense/action of Kiss Mommy Goodbye or the unabashed soap-suds of The Other Woman, is the shakiest of Fielding's crude domestic-issue melodramas--confused, undramatic, with none of the emotional clout of such comparable novels as Beth Gutcheon's Still Missing.

Pub Date: Oct. 26th, 1984
ISBN: 0440223385
Publisher: Doubleday