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by Lisa Appignanesi

Imagine that you are a graduate student desperately trying to avoid writing your thesis. You’ve redecorated your library carrel. You’ve picked all the muffin crumbs out of your laptop. You’ve spent hours looking up your genealogy on that web site run by the Mormons. What now?

Two words: Lisa Appignanesi. Here’s a writer who manages to combine an intellectual pedigree with the time-sucking instincts of popular fiction. A former deputy director of London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Appignanesi has edited volumes of cultural thought and written studies of Freud and Simone de Beauvoir. She’s also a successful author of psychological mysteries, including last year’s The Dead of Winter.

Her latest thriller, Sanctuary, features Leonora Holland, a divorced and emotionally bruised Manhattan cartoonist with an Isabella Rossellini haircut. She jets off to London in search of her missing friend, the gorgeous, fearless journalist Isabel Morgan (who has hair like Nicole Kidman). Using Isabel’s minimalist loft as a base, Leo defies the police and launches a parallel investigation.

Befitting the demands of the genre, Leo is drawn swiftly into a world of secret lives, psychic turmoil, and physical danger. Because Appignanesi wrote this novel, Leo must also struggle mindfully with recent debates in psychoanalysis, the problem of genetically modified foods, and the murky ethics of multinational biotech companies.  Never mind that none of this ultimately has much to do with the missing woman’s fate.

Sanctuary is essentially beach fiction, albeit with better hair, better decor, and informative digressions on hot cultural topics. By the final pages, Appignanesi cuts any egghead pretensions and furnishes a Hollywood ending. For in searching for the tragic truth about Isabel, Leo recovers life, love, and herself. Appignanesi is an intellectual, so all this takes a lardy 360 pages. A pro like Ruth Rendell would have things wrapped up in 250 or less.