Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

In J. Robert Lennon's Familiar, Elisa—called Lisa by all, to the point one wonders if the E is silent or possibly symbolic—is driving home from visiting her son’s grave when the world changes, seamlessly, between one moment and the next. She is suddenly driving an SUV, wearing pantyhose and fifteen extra pounds, with a name-tag pinned to her shirt and a conference schedule on the seat next to her. Apparently, she hasn’t been to her son’s grave at all, but to a leadership conference for a job that’s never been hers. She returns home to find her husband no longer cool and prickly, and her younger son no longer dead.

Psychotic break? Slide through to a parallel universe? Or just a little fantasy that took on a life of its own? Elisa panics, thinking she might have had a stroke—but when brain scans come back clear, she can either get herself committed to a mental hospital, or fake her way through a life she has no recollection of. She begins the process of testing herself against her new situation, finding out which new strangenesses she can bear and which ones are unacceptable, which old compromises were unnecessary and which are integral to her personality. The heart of her disorder seems to be her separation from her grown sons, living and/or dead.

Just so you know--this is not my kind of book. I read it in one sitting out of curiosity and insomnia, but I found it a little pretentious, with the kind of stylized complex characters who feel to me like puppets acting out a grim “Modern Life” farce. If it were a drawing, it would be charcoal with lots of straight lines and angles and some plays on perspective. It’s not that I don’t appreciate shades of gray, I do—I like my bad guys vulnerable and my good guys mean and my greater goods tainted by lesser evils. But this is the kind of book with no bad guys and no good guys, just a lot confused people hurting each other, sometimes unintentionally.

With that said, I think Familiar is well written and occasionally insightful, especially about the effect of a difficult child on family dynamics. If you enjoy contemporary literature where flawed middle-aged characters are struggling to redefine themselves and their relationships in a complex world—this one’s for you.

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