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Unlike lines, parallel lives can intersect

Novel weaves others' stories with that of a murdered mother
by: Courtesy of William Morrow, Williams College English teacher Karen Shepard sets her six-degrees story in New York City.

Last week while having my hair cut, I met a woman who used to live in a Southern town next to the small one I grew up in. Days later I discovered we had several mutual friends here in Portland.

It was one of those 'six-degrees-of-separation' moments that crop up on occasion. And it's a recurring theme in Karen Shepard's mesmerizing third novel, 'Don't I Know You?'

The story opens with the 1976 murder of Gina Engel, a thirtysomething single mother living in New York City. Her body is discovered by her 12-year-old son, Steven, who catches a brief glimpse of the killer as he scrambles down their apartment's fire escape.

The next several days are confusing ones for the boy, who is shuttled between family friends and police detectives and eventually into the hands of a father he barely knows. The primary suspects in the murder include Gina's boyfriend, Phil, but early on there are hints that it was not an exclusive relationship.

The second section of the book takes place 18 months later and focuses on a young Chinese woman, Lily, and her older, wealthy Russian fiance, Nikolai. As she prepares for her wedding, Lily fluctuates between dispassion and gratitude for a future life of leisure.

At first, her story seems to have little to do with Gina and Steven. But slowly, connections are drawn and the plot deepens after a woman from Nikolai's not so distant past contacts Lily with a disturbing question: Does she really know her future husband and just what he's capable of?

In the third part of the novel, Shepard introduces us to 73-year-old Louise Carpanetti, who is dying of lung cancer. It's now 12 years after the death of Gina Engel, who lived downstairs from Louise and her emotionally disturbed son, Michael.

As she prepares for death, Louise worries not only about what will happen to Michael but about what he may have done more than a decade ago. Gina's murder is back in the news, and once again Shepard peppers her narrative with recurring characters and believable coincidences.

'Don't I Know You?' is one of those brilliant hybrids - part character study, part mystery. Shepard paints three portraits of people experiencing uncertainty, each of them poignant and true. Her characters - even the 12-year-old Steven - recognize their faults and weaknesses and struggle with what to do with the knowledge.

At one point the elderly Louise reflects on the indifference and exasperation she encounters at her local post office branch: 'She tried to be a good customer, a familiar customer, but she knew she wasn't either. Still, she always thought, staring down whoever was behind the counter waiting for her to gather herself, what gave them the right to point out what she already knew about herself?'

Shepard also considers gentrification, as Louise watches the infiltration of 'fancy mothers' who reside in what was once a working-class neighborhood. 'Ashamed, they smiled at the black teenage fathers sitting on their stoops. … They nodded to the Dominican handymen playing dominos on card tables at the top of the basement stairs. But they were ready to throw themselves on their children in an instant. They were Secret Service agents, one hand on the hood of the president's car.'

This kind of delicious writing and insight carries the reader along and, for a moment or two, allows us to forget the premise of Shepard's story. But lurking behind each section is the horror of an unsolved murder and the never-ending question of whodunit.

Though the answer will surprise some and irritate others, with a book this absorbing everyone will feel satisfied.

Also reading in Portland

Carolyn Parkhurst's second novel, 'Lost and Found,' follows a group of participants in a reality TV show as they experience challenges within and outside the competition. Parkhurst will read at 7:30 tonight at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

The first blind man to circumnavigate the globe, James Holman went from being a celebrity to dying in obscurity. Luckily the 'Blind Traveler' has been championed in a new nonfiction book by Jason Roberts, 'A Sense of the World.' Roberts will read from his debut at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Powell's City of Books.

If you haven't read all the glowing reviews of 'Water for Elephants,' then we trust you enjoyed your stay on Mars. Sara Gruen's new novel takes place in the circus world of the 1930s, and the buzz requires her to make two stops in Portland. She will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Powell's on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651) and at 1 p.m. Friday at Annie Bloom's Books (7834 S.W. Capitol Highway, 503-246-0053).