Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Wit's End by Karen Joy Fowler

Since reading the collection of short stories What I Didn't See, I've been going through Karen Joy Fowler's back catalog and snatching up anything that didn't have Jane Austen in the title. This book sounded great for a fun bit of a mystery reading, hopefully with Fowler's trademark emotional smarts.

And, in some ways, that is exactly what I got. Wit's End includes many of the elements that appear in Fowler's other work, such as an immortality cult with one surviving member whose founder was mysteriously exempt from the group's celibacy vow (the sweet and funny "Always"), mystery writers and their foibles ("Private Grave 9") and the strange ways that people do a number on one another (too many to mention). The plot centers around the mystery surrounding the relationship of godmother, famous mystery writer Addison Early, and her father—how exactly it began and what soured it. There are descriptions of meals that made my mouth water, images of Santa Cruz that jarred my memories of the place and lots of creepy letters. These parts kept me engaged and excited like a good genre book should.

But what I am gracelessly dancing around here?

I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that the main character, Rima, is twenty-nine and an orphan. She is grieving for both her mother and father, as a unit and separately. Their deaths color her life and make her feel set apart from other twentysomethings, apart from everyone. The thing is that not only are her parents dead, but her little brother is dead, too. He died at the same age as my little brother, from essentially the same cause. This worried me for many reasons--was this not going to be the light read I craved and what if the author got it wrong?

Fowler gets it right, that spectrum of feelings and experiences when someone (or everyone) you love dies. She shows how a person can live with those things and not be permanently broken through the voices of both Rima and Addison. The parts about grief sang with truth while being both simple and in service to the story. It felt good to read even as I shook with angry recognition:

"Rima was perpetually offended by the suggestion that luck should be graded on a curve. Of all of the false comforts she'd been recently offered, the most poisonous one was the one that told you to be grateful that you were better off somehow."

"There'd been an undertone in Scorch's* blog, maybe even in a few comments Addison had made had made, or maybe Rima had imagined it. You weren't supposed to love your brother more than anyone else in the world..."

"In telling the story to Rima and Tilda, her point was a different one. Sometimes something happens to you, she said, and there's no way to be the person you were before. You won't ever be that person again; that person's gone. There's a little freedom in every loss, no matter how unwelcome and unhappy that freedom may be."

I was also really into the idea that runs through the book that we make our own families. This was the subtle message that pulsed under all the loss--inspiring without any saccharine promises.

*Oh how I hate this character's name. Every time I would see it on the page I'd scoff a little then dive back in. I get the whole Santa Cruz, self-invented and kinda stupid young person name but it just didn't sit right.

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