Maybe I needed answers as much as the character Elisa Macalester Brown. She quit graduate school in order to raise children. “She married at twenty-one. Derek was in law school – he was twenty-five, wore a tie; he took her out and drank one bottle of beer and they had sex in his room.” While reading Robert Lennon’s book, Familiar, you become a constant companion to Elisa Brown’s dissatisfaction with life, and one can’t help but sympathize immensely with her from the beginning because of the loss of one of two of her sons to a car crash. The novel begins as she is driving on Interstate 90 through Ohio, the crack in her windshield disappears, and all of a sudden she is wearing different clothes, and driving a different car. Parts of her world have changed, and others have stayed the same.
Throughout the novel you move day to day, sometimes with months flying by at a time, while observing the differences between her old life and her new one. Her sons, Silas and Sam are both alive, but estranged. Her marriage is better, but difficult in other ways. She questions herself of the most basic things, “She wanted to make coffee — but does she make coffee? Or does Derek make coffee?” And by doing so, you realize how much a part of who you are, your being, is how you relate to other people, and pleasing other people. If she was just herself, wouldn’t she do it the same way as her old self? But she is constantly trying to adjust to the interactions with her husband, children, friends, and co-workers in her new life, therefore molding herself into someone else. And what is more confusing is when she is told actions of the past, she doesn’t understand her new self. “Elisa tells herself-this Lisa, the one she is impersonating, is soft, pliable, defanged.” Her new self in this alternate reality has made decisions the Elisa we know would not have made. But then again, if everything is circumstantial, then perhaps half of our personality and choices are because of circumstance? “She is a casualty of circumstance, not the center of the universe.”
I wanted, perhaps like many readers and Elisa, to believe that her lost son Silas had created an alternate reality for her in which he was alive. In order to find answers, she plays a video game which her son Silas created. “She has never played video games, beyond Pac-Man once or twice at the pizza shop, with a boyfriend, in 1984.” Lennon’s writing is seductive and humorous. The characters are fleshed out and intriguing. “It has to be Silas. He is everything she remembers. He is as charming as he is vitriolic; you feel proud when he accepts you, and when he turns on you, you blame yourself.” Elisa becomes obsessed with internet forums and answers on how and why her world changed. It provides only speculation to what it all means, who we are, and in essence, what makes us happy. Perhaps an alternate reality is not as good as it seems. It has just as many problems and is equally as confusing.
The day after I finished the novel I walked into my therapist’s office. He had however, moved into the office one room over and was standing there with the door open, inviting me in. I commented, “oh it’s a different room. But almost the same.” He said, “Yes, it’s familiar, but different.” After spending a week in her head and feeling an awful lot like Elisa Brown from the book Familiar, this was almost too much to handle. Mysterious and captivating, the book left me disturbed for days afterwards and grateful for my one reality.