This was Powell’s Books Indiespensible selection number thirty-six, from late in 2012. I just read it in June, basically because certain nineteenth century heroines who go by the names of Isabel and Anna have taken up a lot of my reading time lately. I wish that I could say that Elisa, the heroine of Familiar, will join the ranks of Isabel Archer and Anna Karenin(a) in the canon of literature that focuses on strong, troubled women. I don’t think she’s going to.
Let me start by saying that I really expected to like this book. The premise is this: Elisa Macalaster Brown is driving back to New York State from Wisconsin. She is returning from her annual pilgrimage to visit her son Silas’s grave. She makes this trip alone every year since she, her husband Derek, and their other son Sam moved away from Wisconsin several years after Silas died. It’s never made clear why the rest of her family unit does not accompany her, and ultimately the why of that is not that important a plot point, but it gives the reader some insight into the Brown family dynamic. Somewhere in Ohio, things change. Elisa realizes that all of a sudden the crack in the windshield of her Honda is gone. She is driving a different car. Her body is different. She was in Wisconsin for a different reason. When she returns home (her house is, conveniently, the same) her relationship with her husband is different. The house is subtly different. Silas is not dead, but she and Derek don’t speak to Silas or Sam, and they actually live in California. Initially Elisa assumes she has somehow slipped into a parallel universe. She doesn’t come clean to her husband when she arrives home, and tries to sort out the differences between her old life and this one without help from anyone. I found this confusing. If I was suddenly dumped into a parallel version of my life, the first person I would want to talk to is my husband. But Elisa and Derek apparently don’t have that kind of marriage. And by “that kind of marriage,” I mean a good marriage. Derek does figure out pretty quickly that his wife is different, and when he tries to get her to talk to him about it, or talk to their creepy therapist about it, she clams up. When eventually she does go to the therapist and confess all, he tells her that she has had a psychotic break, that it’s happened before, and tries to get her through it. She doesn’t really accept that version of events, even though the therapist seems sincere in his belief of what’s going on, and in his desire to help. After that, she decides to go see her sons in California. That visit goes about as well as can be expected, considering she and Derek severed all ties with her kids several years before. Silas is, essentially, a pretty terrible human being. He is a genius video game creator, but sort of a sociopath. His brother Sam has become an alcoholic and potentially a corporate embezzler. They live together but are far from happy.
Elisa also tries to sort out the mechanics of parallel universes. (She entirely rejects the idea that she had a psychotic break.) Conveniently, she works at a large university with a physics department. The interactions she has with a few physicists who have an interest in parallel universes are odd at best. I don’t think I want to get into it any more than that. Ultimately, Elisa ends up becoming a mish-mash of the two versions of herself. The book leaves it up to us to decide the truth of what happened to her. She never returns “home,” or figures out the how, what, or why of the change. She never really mends her relationship with her sons. She and Derek don’t figure out a way to be happy. And the last bit, in which Elisa goes to a parallel universe convention, is just weird.
This book fails because it can’t seem to figure out what it wants to be. Is it science fiction? Is it a portrait of a family in crisis? Is it a character study of a woman driven mad by grief? I have a hard time with books like this, because I don’t know what genre they belong in. And maybe that doesn’t matter, really. Maybe truly good literature of the twenty-first century transcends genre. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe this isn’t truly good literature. Maybe truly good literature needs to know what it is. That’s a debate I actually wouldn’t mind having some time. I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe it’s a matter of personal opinion and taste. I do know that Familiar was well written and Lennon moves the story along pretty efficiently. I was disappointed that I didn’t bond to any of the characters. I would definitely read more by J. Robert Lennon. His other novels sound interesting, just like Familiar did. I’m hoping that they live up to their blurbs a little better, though.