on October 15, 2012
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.
on February 11, 2013
"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.
on October 21, 2012
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.
on December 30, 2012
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. And in comes the "counselor," Amos, who has been counselling the couple although Elisa doesn't recall anything earlier. Amos counsels only around five concepts that Elisa, the new Elisha, doesn't accept. She wants to be reunited with her sons and the last part of the novel deals with that.
When anyone writes that this novel doesn't go anywhere, it means either they didn't read it or weren't up to the experimental component of this very unusual novel.
I am a bit disappointed in the ending of the novel and suggest that future readers might wish to read the three pages at the end of the novel where the author writes about how the novel came to be.
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 12-29-12
Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories
Castle: A Novel
on February 11, 2013
I was debating if I should give this book 3 or 4 stars, because it did provide an interesting read, but the ending was so disappointing that I decided on 3 stars only. I read an average of 2 books a month and I usually don't mind endings that are open to the reader's interpretation, especially since this was a book picked for our book club. In this case though, and I am really trying not to spoil the ending, it seemed like a very interesting story (especially since I have always been fascinated with the idea of alternate realities), but then the author simply ran out of ideas on how to explain what happened and leaves it all up to the reader. It definitely made for a good book club discussion, but personally I was rather disappointed and would give it an "average" at best.
on September 25, 2015
I liked this book pretty much, but wasn't thrilled with the ending. That may be mostly me, that is, I like things to be somewhat wrapped up by the end of the story. In Familiar, the end comes abruptly leaving the reader to wonder what happens to several loose ends. I was reading on a Kindle, not keeping close attention to where I was in the book, and when I turned to the last page I thought something was wrong, that I had skipped way ahead by accident. After flipping back and forth a few time I realized that WAS the end.
But the story line was interesting, so I'd say if loose ends don't bother you, then check it out.
on March 10, 2015
Gripping and terrifying "what if" tale that addresses the challenges of parenting viewed through the eyes of a reasonably unhappy woman in a troubled marriage grappling with the death of a son and reams of self-doubt. Lennon can be very funny, but in this novel he holds back more than a bit, which means the book can be a heavy read. Like all self-focused narrators, the main character gives us a lot of information about herself, as well as her impressions of others. It's not always easy to tell exactly what is happening, but that's a given in a book framed around the conceit that the narrator's own perspective is severely compromised. One complaint is that, as in Postman, the author seems to break into a gallop to get the ending. Lennon is a superb writer with a wonderful ear and a very strange sense of humor, but he sometimes struggles to completely finish his work. But a very good and deeply disturbing book nonetheless.
on January 16, 2013
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.
on February 14, 2013
Lennon took on a big task here and admirably succeeded. The author takes the already complex subject of parents, children, and marriage and makes us view it through a funhouse mirror. The parallel universe works as a conceit and a symbol. But underneath this purposeful and adept distortion is a true modern tragedy, a heartbreaker for anyone who has ever wanted that impossible do-over, that chance at redemption, that moment when an apology is uttered and accepted.
I applaud the author for his compelling audacity.