Karen Joy Fowler’s book starts in the middle with a bang, with her main character, Rosemary Cooke, away at college and undergoing some youthful rebellion. Rosemary tells us of what seems like her idyllic early life back in the mid-west: she has two loving parents, an older brother, Lowell, and a younger sister, Fern. Lowell is someone to look up to while Fern is Rosemary’s shadow half- they are raised to do everything together, dressed in matching outfits and speak in their own language. Rosemary dances around exactly what the break is that causes her family to fracture, but we understand that after that event nothing is the same: Lowell is estranged, Fern disappears, and Rosemary becomes the sole child that returns home for holidays. Rosemary saves the fracturing reveal for mid-way through the story, and I won’t spoil the twist (although the cover and the back both seem to give it away- be smarter publisher!).
I’m still not sure how I feel about this one. I was fooled by how funny and lighthearted the beginning of the book was into thinking that would be the tone for the novel as a whole- it is not. The Cooke family falling apart is sad and Rosemary’s telling of it thoughtful, filled with deeper questions about who is really family, what holds us together and what we owe to our families. Neither novel would be bad as its own thing, but in sandwiching them together the tonal shift was jarring (I found the same thing in Swamplandia by Karen Russell). I also had the plot twist spoiled early on (come on cover art), so the twist had less impact than had I arrived at that part blind.
Beyond this, I’m not sure what to further write in a review- my feelings months out from having read it are that it was interesting, but somehow off-putting in a way that I can’t exactly put my finger on (I didn’t pass it on to anyone after I read it, and it would normally fit within the Venn diagram of things I pass on). Fowler writes well and the plot proceeds at an ok clip (some things drag a little, a consequence of delaying the big fracture event). This novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, so maybe its also that I expected more given that hype? Overall: meh.
Counting this one as the ‘Adapt’ (camel) square for cbr14bingo. How we adapt (not necessarily thrive or heal, but adapt) to changing family situations is a key theme for this novel.