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Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: "Wit's End"

I didn't read Karen Joy Fowler's book, "The Jane Austen Book Club." I'm not sure why, but I remember reading a book blurb and just feeling as if I didn't get the point. That's not to say, of course, that many others haven't read the book and enjoyed it immensely. I mean, it was on the bestseller list for a spell.

When I got a publisher's copy of her new novel, "Wit's End," I decided to give it a try.

Despite the creepy cover photo of a giant green eye peering into a tiny door (more about that later), I went into the story with an open mind because the subtitle said: "What happens when your readers steal your characters?"

And the press materials went on about her exploration of the online life of fan fiction. Cool. Seems new and provocative. A side of online life I've not yet experienced.

Except that I really for the life of me can't figure out what this book is about.

It starts out with Shaker Heights native Rima Lanisell, who has lost her mother (a long time ago, I think), her father (of a long illness) and her brother (suddenly when he crashed the car while drunk). Familial relationships were bizarre with her weirdly close relationship with her younger brother, Oliver, and her strangely distant relationship with her father, Bim, who was a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer.

She was horrified by her father's revelation of things in his columns like her first crush. One Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist once told me that after a certain age (say 12-13), permission is required to write about your children's personal mishaps. Old Bim would have done well to follow that advice.

Anyway, Rima has left all of this misery and her middle school teaching job behind to visit her godmother, Addison Early at her home, Wit's End in Santa Cruz, Calif. Addison is a mega mystery author known as A.B. Early. And the people who inhabit Wit's End are all a little bizarre and I guess serve as surrogate family for the grieving Rima.

Addison, who has her own bizarre upbringing in that her parents were actually brother and sister—a fact only revealed to her when her "father" announced he was getting married and would now be her "uncle"—holes up in her studio working on her latest Maxwell Lane novel. She's written a bunch, including one with the character of Bim Lanisell, Rima's father, in which Bim kills his wife (Rima's mom?).

Apparently that novel iced the relationship between the real Bim and Addison, who from near as I can gather became tight while reporters covering the same story. In fact, it is sort of revealed though never really explained that Addison had an unrequited crush on the much-older Bim.

Rima becomes obsessed with a fan from Holy City, home to a mid-20th century cult led by an overweight, charismatic leader named William Riker and a place where Bim and Addison first met. And there are references to what she finds on wikipedias and blog entries.

In fact, that foray into the online fan world reveals that her life (and that of her dead brother's) has been speculated on by some of A.B. Early's fans. How? Not really sure. Because fact and fiction all seem to roll together in this story.

Addison and Rima are strangers and it's hard to feel as if they ever actually bond. Rima goes on her own little adventure with a crazed fan and learns something about Addison's real father, which seems to cause the book to jump the shark at the end rather then pull the meandering narrative strings together. Why do I say this? Because at the end, the character of Maxwell Lane—Addison's star sleuth—becomes an avatar in a new Web-based story and Rima talks to him as if he were real.

Confused? Yeah, so was I. I'm not sure what story Fowler was trying to tell. But I'll never look at doll houses in quite the same way. I never had one, but my sister did—and does. Addison used them to stage the murders in miniature for her novels. Very creepy.

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