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A haunting, enigmatic novel about a woman who is given a second chance--and isn't sure whether she really wants it

* A Publishers Weekly "Indie Sleeper"
• A Powell's Indiespensable Pick
• The Nervous Breakdown's October Book Club Pick *

Elisa Brown is driving back from her annual, somber visit to her son Silas's grave when something changes. Actually, everything changes: her ...

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Familiar: A Novel

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A haunting, enigmatic novel about a woman who is given a second chance--and isn't sure whether she really wants it

* A Publishers Weekly "Indie Sleeper"
• A Powell's Indiespensable Pick
• The Nervous Breakdown's October Book Club Pick *

Elisa Brown is driving back from her annual, somber visit to her son Silas's grave when something changes. Actually, everything changes: her body is more voluptuous; she's wearing different clothes and driving a new car. When she arrives home, her life is familiar--but different. There is her house, her husband. But in the world she now inhabits, Silas is no longer dead, and his brother is disturbingly changed. Elisa has a new job, and her marriage seems sturdier, and stranger, than she remembers. She finds herself faking her way through a life she is convinced is not her own. Has she had a psychotic break? Or has she entered a parallel universe? Elisa believed that Silas was doomed from the start, but now that he is alive, what can she do to repair her strained relations with her children? She soon discovers that these questions hinge on being able to see herself as she really is--something that might be impossible for Elisa, or for anyone. In Familiar, J. Robert Lennon continues his profound and exhilarating exploration of the surreal undercurrents of contemporary American life.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
…allusive and mysterious…[Lennon's] ninth book and one of his finest…this novel, like every other, is a novel of patterns. What makes it greater than that is the insight it displays—sometimes moving, sometimes horrific—into the mind of a woman who requires the machinery of science fiction in order to realize she has failed her children and her life is incommunicable, who does not begin to see herself clearly until the entire universe has altered itself to repair her windshield, who wonders if maybe, after all, the world isn't better with a crack in it.
—Kevin Brockmeier
Publishers Weekly
A woman falls into an alternate version of her life but fails to convince anyone that her life was ever different in this stealthy and thought-provoking literary thriller. While on her annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin to visit her son Silas’s grave, Elisa Brown discovers, in a blink, that she’s wearing unfamiliar clothes and driving an unfamiliar car en route to an academic conference, where she is known as the graduate studies coordinator for a biotech center at an upstate New York university. It seems she’s exchanged her lab job for a less intellectual role; her “habitual, practical, inert” union with Derek is now a loving relationship (due to counseling, it turns out). And Silas did not die in a car accident, but he and his brother, Sam, are estranged from their parents and living in California, for reasons Derek won’t discuss. With no one to confide in about her growing sense of alienation and unease, Elisa seeks out specialists in alternate universes in her old field while going through the motions of her new routine. Lennon (Castle) succeeds by setting his odd, uncommon narrative in intimate terms that delve into Elisa’s sense of confusion. Agent: Jim Rutman, Sterling Lord Literistic. (Oct. 2)
From the Publisher

Praise for Familiar:

"[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

Library Journal
In the remarkable opening of this latest novel from Lennon (Castle), Elisa Brown is driving home from a visit to her son Silas's grave when suddenly everything changes. Her clothes are different, and she arrives home to a life that's familiar but dramatically altered. Same husband, same children—suddenly, Silas is alive—but everything is different, including herself. She even has a new job and finds her marriage both happier and stranger than she remembered. So Elisa goes about fending her way through a life she is certain is not her real one. If she is living this life, who is living her other one? Why and how has this happened to her? Has she had a psychotic break, or are there parallel worlds? Whether she wants to or not, Elisa must push the limits of the known to follow a path like a Möbius strip where little is as it seems and every move challenges the previous and the subsequent ones. VERDICT Stunning, convoluted, and compelling, this thoroughly mesmerizing work is recommended for discerning readers who savor an unusual story brilliantly presented.—Joyce Townsend, Pittsburg, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Lennon's (Castle, 2009, etc.) latest literary effort chronicles Elisa Macalaster Brown's life as it quantum-shifts into a parallel universe. At some random midtrip interval, with Elisa wending her way homeward from her annual pilgrimage to the grave of her son, Silas, dead in an auto accident at age 15, she morphs into a different version of the same person. No longer a spare, contained woman in cutoff jeans driving her familiar Honda Accord, Elisa becomes more voluptuous, more properly dressed, apparently in midtrip in a new car on her way home from a professional conference. And Silas isn't dead, which she'll soon learn. But there is this: All that has been a barrier to peace and contentment remains. She is still the mother who "has created a family of miserable loners who seem incapable of helping one another." Silas' death had forced Elisa to confront love in all its forms and contours, but now she faces a world where all seems nearly identical, except that Silas and his brother, Sam, are grown men estranged from their parents. The book unfolds slowly in first person, present tense, providing the deepening intimacy necessary to examine how Elisa comes to believe she has shifted to an alternate universe. And as the story develops in her new world within her new self, the new Elisa grows "increasingly frightened ... by the possibility that she might now be sent back against her will, in an instant, the same way she got here." While Silas' every action reveals him as near sociopathic, it is Derek, Elisa's husband, who best serves as both foil and catalyst. Approaching the complex internal story without postmodern irony, Lennon has a gift for stretching the borders of character. A surrealistic tale about the enigma to be found in second chances.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976255
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 10/2/2012
  • Edition description: Original
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 804,147
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

J. Robert Lennon is the author of seven novels, including Castle and Mailman, and a story collection, Pieces for the Left Hand. His fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, Granta, Harper's Magazine, Playboy, and The New Yorker. He lives in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches writing at Cornell University.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 19, 2013

    My only problem with this book is trying to get my head out of i

    My only problem with this book is trying to get my head out of it now that I'm done reading. The author is masterful--he pulls you in with a relatively simple concept, and assumptions about the roles of parents and the loss of a child, and weaves them into a wholly unexpected picture. 

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 9, 2012

    waste of time

    and money. Only a little over a hundred pages and really just stunk. I will never get that time back!

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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