Familiar by J Robert Lennon

2012  part 1 chapter 5

The crack in the windshield disappears. She tries to blink it back into place because at first she thinks that her vision has blurred, but blinking doesn’t bring it back, and now she is noticing other things. The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. The window’s closed and the air-conditioning is on, the dashboard isn’t dusty anymore, and the taste of mint gum is in her mouth. In fact the gum is there, she has gum in her mouth right now. She pushes it out with her tongue and it falls into her lap. The gum lands not on her cutoff jeans, but on a gray cotton skirt draped over a pair of stockings. These aren’t her clothes— she doesn’t have clothes like these. She’s wearing an ivory silk blouse and there’s a sticker on the blouse that reads HELLO! MY NAME IS, then in her own block printing, ELISA MACALASTER BROWN. She notices that the spring in the seat is no longer bothering her, and that she is wearing an uncomfortable bra.

observations: My, but this is a compelling and thrilling book: seriously unsettling and a seriously good read.

Elisa, above, has just found herself in a new world. Except it isn’t a new world – it’s just subtly different from the one she remembers living in. Everything is familiar, but not quite the same. And there is one huge difference: she had been visiting her dead son’s grave. His death had been a devastation to her, a defining moment in her life. But in this new world, he is still alive… and, in the best subverted expectation imaginable, he’s actually not very nice: a brilliant direction to explore.

Elisa fumbles her way around in her new milieu – sometimes aware that she has surprised people by what she doesn’t know. She makes changes in her new life to make it resemble more her old life – there is an entertaining strand in which she tracks down the man who was her lover before, and a funny but awful scene where she applies for her old job. She wonders if this is some aspect of Multiverse physics she has come up against, and investigates that.

It’s not just an amnesia story, or time travel; and in fact the ending could be a little disappointing to some – it’s very much not all wrapped up and explained. But Lennon makes that work, and the scenario is endlessly thought-provoking – what makes us what we are? If we change something a little, are we still the same? What IS going on in Elisa’s head, is this for real?

The writing is amazing: Elisa’s son is a computer game designer, and here she thinks how good he is, as she looks at one of his characters, a waitress:
The way the clean apron nevertheless bears faded stains that can never be washed out, and the way it creases when she gestures, the fibers frayed and weak with age. How is it even possible to evoke these details in a video game?
It’s a bit like wondering how Lennon can do such a great job writing a woman, in a novel, in an unreal situation. If I’d read this blind I’d have assumed it was written by a woman: he is very clever and knowing about the small details of women’s lives.

All in all, the book is a triumph.

The picture is of a bus driver in Washington State in 1945 – wrong era, wrong vehicle, but it looked true to the spirit of the new Elisa, and if we’re talking parallel universes, who’s to say it isn’t actually her.


  1. This is a very unique and interesting blog. Your selection of photos and the tie-in to the article are very imaginative. Ran across this while replying to Lara on a comment from my site. Best, Robert at Rooftop Reviews

  2. Thanks Robert, very kind. I will go and look at your site...

  3. Moira - Oh, what an intriguing premise!! Just what would happen if you change one little thing about your life?? Hmmm......Lots to think about here and it sounds as though it's handled in a very suspenseful way. I like it when a book handles those larger questions.

    1. I loved this book - it was both compelling and thought-provoking - and I strongly recommend it!

  4. Sounds very interesting. Not my usual type of book, but I am expanding my horizons. I will put it on my list.

    1. Definitely worth a try - it is clever and complex, but also a very enjoyable, entertaining read.


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