There are many counter-factual novels, presenting history as it didn’t happen, from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. J Robert Lennon’s Familiar takes this familiar idea and uses it for entirely different purposes. Instead of taking the wide angled approach and changing world events, he focuses on the life of one woman and, by undoing one significant event in that life, demonstrates its effect. In doing so, he not only highlights the capricious nature of fate, but writes a character novel that gains depth by having two characters play the same role.
The ‘exchange’ takes place as Elisa is driving home after a conference. In the first few chapters we learn a little of her background, her husband Derek, and her two sons, Silas and Sam. This all seems perfectly natural as driving along an empty highway is the ideal time for such reflection. In particular, we learn of Silas’ death a number of years before and the effect this had on her and her marriage. This is the event that will change and will change everything with it, though at first Elisa is only aware of superficial differences:
“The sound inside the car has changed. It’s quiet. The window is closed. 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.”
Now driving a different car, and in a different body (“She’s, what, ten pounds heavier?”), Elisa returns to her to her home to find herself in what appears to be a much better marriage:
“’The chicken’s almost done,’ Derek says from the doorway. ‘You want a glass of wine?’”
On the surface she would seem to have found the better life she has dreamed of since Silas died, but you will not be surprised to learn that everything is not a rosy as it seems. Her happy marriage, for example, is built on a compromise she finds it difficult to understand or sustain.
The novel is gripping because Elisa has to come to terms with her new life without being able to easily ask the questions she needs to as everyone assumes she knows the answers. She has, for example, a completely different job. As she comes to know her new life, she also has to make decisions as to whether she should try her best to fit in, adopt the habits of her ‘old’ life, or aim for something new. The more she is the ‘same person’ to herself, the more she has ‘changed’ to others. The novel therefore asks a lot of questions about identity and how far we can shape it; these same questions also apply to her role as a parent.
Familiar is a science fiction novel that’s mostly about character. Yet, like all good science fiction, it starts with the idea: what if you were suddenly transported into an alternate universe, inserted into the life of your doppelganger, but with your memories intact. (In this Lennon also builds on the literary trope of the double). Lennon takes this idea and executes it perfectly.