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“Familiar” uses the conceit of what appears to be an alternate reality to explore a middle aged woman’s regrets and disappointments. The alternate reality device is a crack in a windshield that alters Elisa Brown’s perception of her life during a business trip. It may be that she’s crossed some sort of rift between universes, or (more prosaically) she’s having a nervous breakdown. Whichever it is, she’s thrown into a life different from the one that she’s been used to for the last 45 years. Author Robert Lennon gives us more than one way of viewing the cause of what’s happening to Elisa. One is supernatural, the other not. As far as the story’s concerned, it doesn’t really mater what the answer is. What’s important is that her new circumstances force Elisa to carefully reexamine fateful choices and accidental occurrences in her life. These include her career choices, her relationship to her husband and her children, all of which are quite different in the “new” life she finds herself living. In the course of watching Elisa navigate a different life, “Familiar” covers a wide span of topics, including unhappy marriages and infidelity, couples therapy, dysfunctional families, spiteful, ungrateful children, body self-image, wish fulfillment, video games, internet culture, sci-fi conventions, and the differences between what is real and imagined in everyday life. Lennon’s covering a lot (and I mean a lot) of ground here, especially considering that “Familiar” clocks in at a relatively brief 225 pages. I think he pulls it off. Elisa’s character is well developed, complex and feels quite substantial. The emotional turmoil that her alternate timeline forces her to confront is painful and sometimes bleak, not unlike real life for those of us stuck in a single timeline. And while parts of the book dealing with her estrangement from her horribly screwed up sons verged on depressing, the author kept me engaged with a steady stream of dense character dialogue and forward movement. A warning, though, the book’s themes are far more likely to resonate with an older reader with some life experience under her belt. Less so for a younger reader who’s hoping for a Matrix-like exploration of alternate realities. Check it out!
From Booklist Returning from her annual pilgrimage to her son Silas’ grave, Elisa Brown is suddenly struck by a sense that things have changed. The car she is driving isn’t hers, her body has transformed, and in the seat next to her sits a conference binder addressed to a Lisa Brown. The old Elisa’s son died at age 15; she was having an extramarital affair; and she was very close to her living son, Sam. This new Lisa is estranged from both of her children and lives in quiet tension with her husband in a home devoid of life. As the old Elisa tries to parse out what has happened to her, she discovers that her new reality is as sad and complicated as her previous life, and she begins to feel trapped between both worlds. Readers who enjoyed Lennon’s previous novel Castle (2009) will see some common themes here, as Elisa questions her own understanding of reality and memory and tries to unravel the emotional mystery that surrounds both of her lives. –Heather Paulson
Familiar: A Novel Paperback – October 2, 2012 by J. Robert Lennon (Author) Review
What a strange world we live in. This novel reveals the life of a woman either come apart or living some form of parallel universe.J. Robert Lennon’s new novel, “Familiar,” asks us to react to several illusions or not. What if you suddenly found yourself in a life similar to but not quite the same as your own, what would you do?A lab manager named Elisa Brown, aka, Lisa, finds herself suddenly in a new body living a different type of life. She has the same husband, Derek, two estranged sons, same home, only nicer. She is not sure how to react. Everyone notes she is acting differently. She is afraid to explain her situation, and she goes about finding a way to live this new life. She discovers her marriage is in jeopardy, her sons gone, all the while believing one son is dead. The family was more than dysfunctional to begin with. Lisa delves in the mysterious world of parallel universe, looking for answers. “In a recent interview with the literary magazine Unstuck, Lennon described the book as “a horror novel about parenthood,” and the shock of unfamiliar circumstances is ultimately overridden by Elisa’s fear that she is destined to fail as a parent no matter what. “Was there anything she could have done that would have resulted in a satisfactory outcome?” she wonders. “She needs to believe the answer is no. “This is a book that is so ‘out there’, that I was looking for answers. Alas, the ending is not satisfying, and the novel is so strange, that I now realize, there can be no answers. The author has written a very clever book that draws you in and then spits you out. I am still trying to figure out whether I like the novel. It is simply mystifying. Recommended. prisrob 12-29-12Pieces for the Left Hand: StoriesCastle: A Novel -Read Reviews-
I found this book much more intriguing than I expected, but I’m not recommending it to my wife, who prefers upbeat tales with upbeat endings. This story is about a woman’s search for her identity in the strange land of her dysfunctional family. Is she nuts? Has she slipped into a parallel universe? Regardless of which it is, is she capable of grasping (and dealing with) the realities about her? God knows she’s trying hard enough, because living in a freaky kind of limbo is not an enviable existence. And is all revealed at the end? Well, I don’t want to blow this with any spoilers, but if you lack a taste for ambiguity, this book will not grab you the surprising way it did me. However, if you do like it, you shouldn’t miss also reading the deliciously entertaining “Radio Iris” by Anne-Marie Kinney.
Tags: American Contemporary Fiction - Individual Authors +, Contemporary Women, Familiar: A Novel, Fiction, Fiction - General, Graywolf Press, J. Robert Lennon, Literary, Mental health, Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), Ohio, Psychological, Psychological fiction, Self-perception