J. Robert Lennon’s Familiar opens with an intriguing hook: A woman driving home from an annual visit to her son’s grave notices that a crack in her windshield has vanished and suddenly finds herself in an alternate reality where her son never died. Complications, however, ensue when it becomes clear that this single, albeit major, change in the protagonist’s past has had a massive ripple effect on her entire life: she now has an unfamiliar job, she’s in therapy with her husband to save their faltering marriage, and her relationship with her other son is strained almost beyond repair. Unable to explain this strange turn of events, the novel’s protagonist embarks upon a lonely, maddening quest of self-discovery that threatens to undermine everything she believes not only about herself but about the universe as well.
Intriguing though the novel’s premise is, the novel’s real strength is its attention to the inner working of the human heart and the complications inherent in all adult relationships. Most prominent among these is the protagonist’s ambivalence toward motherhood. The shock that results from the news that her son is alive is only initially due to the fact that it runs counter to everything she knows about the world she inhabits. True terror dawns when she begins to remember that the child was on his way to becoming a monster, that his earliest attitudes and actions suggested that he was well on his way to becoming a sociopath.
Along similar lines, her failing marital relationship raises many discomforting yet significant questions about the limits of love. Must a woman always place her children above all else? Where does the husband fit in? And, more to the point, what about her own happiness and fulfillment? By raising these issues, Familiar puts pressure on many of the myths assumptions that contemporary culture places on motherhood. In this sense, the novel serves as a fictional companion to works like Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother.
As the novel careens toward its (perhaps inevitable) conclusion, it also threatens to go off the tracks in places — but this is to be expected. After all, confronting the kinds of issues that Familiar examines isn’t easy, and to wrap the emotionally fraught proceedings up in a neat, sensible package would undercut the complexity of the foregoing narrative.
All told, Familiar is an emotionally gripping and intellectually stimulating page turner, a dark meditation on relationships, motherhood, and the fragile nature of reality.
Wow! I’ve been doing this for five years already. Actually, it’s been a little longer, but I just realized that the anniversary passed a few weeks ago, and now here we are.
Back in 2007, Curtis Smith’s short story collection The Species Crown inspired me to start blogging about books from small press authors. Since then, I’ve managed with the help of fellow small press enthusiasts like Tom Powers and Lavinia Ludlow (among others) to average about one review a week.
An occasion like this leaves me a little bit tempted to compile a “best of” list, but the problem is that I’ve enjoyed far too many books (the official count is over 300 reviews!) to limit myself to naming a few I consider “the best.” Instead, here’s a random sample of some of the titles I’ve reviewed over the past five years:
Another five years? Who knows… I’ll just take it one book at a time!
In her debut collection of short fiction, Whatever Used To Grow Around Here, Lauren Belski lovingly charts the unmapped and ever-shifting borderland between adolescence and adulthood in contemporary America. For the most part, her characters are twenty-somethings who long not so much for the innocence of youth but a sense of hope and optimism lost after repeated brushes with the daunting ambiguities and contradictions that constitute the so-called “real-world.” In some ways, the biggest question facing many of these young adults who teeter precariously somewhere between the Gen-X and Gen-Y labels is that of what to wear: New sundresses, shirts, and skirts from Banana Republic, Hollister, and Macy’s, all designed to flatter and look great in job interviews, cocktail parties, and other occasions for discomfort that mark the passage into adulthood, or the comfortable thrift-store rags of youth that cost three dollars and still smell of the perfume worn by their former owners? The over-sized Burberry coat your dad gave you, hoping perhaps, you’d one day grow into it? The heavy sweater and matching gloves the girl you just met promises to knit for you if only you’ll come in out of the cold? The loose-fitting dress you wore on your first day of work only to realize, after dozens of late nights and countless boxes of salty Szechuan takeout, that it’s suddenly the tightest thing you own? As anyone who’s passed through the region of uncertainty explored throughout Whatever Used To Grow Around Here can attest, these aren’t easy questions to answer, and while it was TS Eliot who talked about preparing a face to meet the faces you will meet, it’s Belski who dares to ask what you’ll wear once you’ve finished primping. The key to being an adult, it turns out, is to dress the part and keep on faking it until the act comes naturally, to drive in ever-widening circles around the edges of adulthood until the terrain starts to look familiar, to live life, to make mistakes, to get it all wrong yet still have the confidence, however misguided, that one day you’ll get it all right.
This week’s review appears in the Conium Review.