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.