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Familiar: A Novel Paperback – October 2, 2012

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Editorial Reviews

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


[An] allusive and mysterious novel . . . one of [Lennon's] finest. (The New York Times Book Review)

This is an important book, one that reflects the 21st-century human's fragmentary condition in both content and form, told in a manner so thrilling that it achieves an almost magical propulsion. It's very funny, too. . . . Lennon has created a woman for our times, no matter how many of our times are happening at once. Familiar is a terrific novel, unnerving and, ultimately, true. (Boston Globe)

Familiar is as tightly wound as a great Alfred Hitchcock movie. . . . He keeps Familiar balanced at a perfect pitch between allowing us to believe what has happened to Elisa is real and to think that she's had a mental breakdown brought about by anxiety and depression. In the scientific shadows, Lennon has executed a literary puzzle, a marvelous trick of the mind. (Los Angeles Times)

The questions posed by this novel shift over time from the metaphysical to the moral, and in the end, Familiar stands as a resonant and haunting riddle. (Star Tribune (Minneapolis))

Like Vonnegut, Lennon is able to defy genres. . . . Sad and captivating, Familiar explores the depths of loss and the limits of reality, leaving us to consider our susceptibility to the lives we create for ourselves. (The Outlet, the blog of Electric Literature)

Lennon's smart, chilling prose and the urgency of present tense carry this story to its dramatic, if ambiguous, conclusion. . . . A smart, fast-paced novel. (Shelf Awareness for Readers, starred review)

A novel that imposes itself on the imagination from the opening sentences . . . Lennon's brisk prose is both vivid and precise; the dialogue is clear and authentic, often funny. In fact, considering that this is a deadly serious, often bewildering and affecting novel, Familiar is witty and satiric. It is obvious that its genius lies in Lennon's feel for metaphysical contradictions that consistently undercut the realism . . . a similar approach to the theme of parallel universes and altered experiences within shifting time frames has also been explored in novels such as Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 or Tom McCarthy's Remainder, neither of which achieves the unsettling mastery of Lennon's far shorter and infinitely superior novel, which could inspire a brilliant screenplay … Familiar is fresh and original; it is also disturbing in its strangeness, because that strangeness is eerily real. (The Irish Times)

The direct present-tense narration and instantly engaging plight prove an irresistible combination. . . . One of the clever things about the set-up here is how neatly it invigorates some of the drearier procedures of conventional fiction . . . a meditation on family and identity likely to stir brain and heart alike. (The Observer)

Lennon is an American writer whose novels delicately probe the psychology of their protagonists. . . . In Familiar Lennon uses his sci-fi vehicle to create eerie fiction. The notion of parallel universes becomes a metaphor for life choices and their results . . . immersion in her alternate realities prompts reflection upon the aleatory nature of our own life, in all its uncanniness. (The Independent on Sunday)

This highly convincing nightmare reads like a thriller; Lennon is painfully truthful about grief and parenthood. (The Times)

Tight in focus and construction and written in a steady present tense. . . . Lennon generally resists the comic and narrative possibilities available to his structure in favour of exploiting its capacity for generating metaphors and analogies--and by refusing to work his way through to a moment of sensible closure, ending instead at a point when things are at their most blurry and brain-teasing, he has constructed an otherworldly narrative that feels fleshed out but not stretched thin. (The Evening Standard)

J. Robert Lennon's beautifully written new novel bristles with menace and suspense--a terrific and disturbing read. (The Daily Mail)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press (October 2, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1555976255
  • ISBN-13: 978-1555976255
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.6 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,049,708 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

J. Robert Lennon is the author of a story collection, Pieces For The Left Hand, and seven novels, including Mailman, Castle, and Familiar. He holds an MFA from the University of Montana, and has published short fiction in The New Yorker, Harper's, Playboy, Granta, The Paris Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. He has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Best American Nonrequired Reading, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and his story "The Rememberer" inspired the CBS detective series Unforgettable. His book reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, and The London Review of Books, and he lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Calfornia Shrink on October 15, 2012
Format: Paperback
Pick up Familiar and say goodbye to the world as you know it. Once I started reading this book, I found it impossible to put down. It grips you and doesn't let go. Best (or worst) of all, it makes you actually start to feel the way the characters feel-strange, on edge, questioning everything. This isn't a horror novel, but I found the last third of the book, or thereabouts, completely terrifying, and the ending stunned me. A hugely thrilling read.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Gary Schroeder on February 11, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"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.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Lorraine Berry on October 21, 2012
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I found myself feeling unsettled several times while reading FAMILIAR. The idea that I could find myself transferred into a body not my own, with all the details of my life changed--except for those people who had been familiar to me--was unnerving. And I feel I can't reveal too many details without spoiling this great experience for anyone else.
But I couldn't put this book down.
Lennon has a real gift for writing prose that draws you along, making it one of those books where you keep saying, "only one more chapter," and then wondering where your afternoon is gone as you realize you're several chapters past the original pledge.
Highly recommended.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Eric Selby on December 30, 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I read a review of this novel in The New York Times I was reluctant to buy it because I've little interest in science fiction or what I consider adult fantasy. But I decided I'd try it. And I certainly have no regrets even though I think the ending could have been condensed considerably. Elisa Brown is in an unhappy--or somewhat unhappy--marriage to Derek, quite possibly a marriage that becomes damaged by the sudden death of a few years earlier of their younger son, Silas, buried in Wisconsin where they were living at the time but now in New York State. They are college-type professionals and have an older son, Sam who for a while is gay. (No, he does not go to some fundamentalist sexual reconstruction whatever! I will leave the mystery of the other Sam for you, the potential reader.
Suddenly one day while driving Elisa changes to a different Elisa, driving a different and new car. So now she must adjust somehow to making her way with Derek--he's the same Derek--without letting on that she is not who she was.
Were this plot in the hands of a lesser novelist, it would have crashed for me right there, just a quarter of the way through the novel. I have little toleration for novels that take me into any type of "twilight zone." But the Lennon novel is not a "twilight zone" read.
The novel is essentially about parenting, about how inadequate adults are at it, how ill equipped we are, how what we'd envisioned ourselves to be as parents is unrealistic. Elisa and Derek, the newly transformed Elisa, now have two adult sons. This is not a spoiler since all this happens soon on in the novel. Yes, Silas is alive. And Sam is straight. And they are living in San Francisco where Silas has a company that makes computer games, maybe successfully so, maybe not.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Cary B. Barad on December 17, 2012
Format: Paperback
This novel is probably best characterized as "science fiction light"--which means that it will be fully acceptable to readers (like myself) who typically have little interest in "real" science fiction. Because it is written from the perspective of an educated adult woman and her middle class family, we can fully identify with the characters, and the writing itself takes on a edgy flavor which is uniquely appealing and contagious. Although time travel and related concepts are very tricky to write about, Lennon succeeds in keeping everything reasonably straight while keeping his readers entertained. Highly recommended for discerning fiction lovers.
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