Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


Wit's End by Karen Joy Fowler








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Karen Joy Fowler’s new novel, Wit’s End, is an enjoyable riff on writers, readers and characters, and the blur between fictional characters and real people. The title refers to the home where the mystery writer A.B. Early lives and works. The protagonist, her goddaughter, Rima Lannisell, comes to visit and begins a quest to find out about the relationship between early and Rima’s late father, and along the way tries to unravel what is real and what is imagined. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 3, pp. 31-33:

The attic was a disappointment to Rima. It wasn't a romantic attic with rocking horses, birdcages, and bridal veils. It wasn't a spooky attic with taxidermy, dress dummies, and bridal veils. Mostly it was filled with boxes, some of which contained Addison's published books and had never- even been opened. There were first editions, foreign editions, large print, book club, hardcover, trade paper, and mass market.

Light sifted in through two screened vents, just enough for Rima to make out the general terrain. Addison had brought a flashlight. She flicked it on, and gave it to Tilda, who began to move through the stacks, tipping the top boxes to the side so she could read the labels of those beneath. Dust rose and spun in the beam of light. The dogs were quieter now, snuffling in an efficient, disciplined fashion. They wormed their way under a heap of old dining room chairs, making them rock briefly.

As Rima's eyes adjusted, she found more to interest her. She almost stepped on a lamp with a sphinx for a base. It had no shade, no bulb, and no place to plug into. The sphinx's nose was chipped, and Rima couldn't decide whether it was supposed to be that way, eroded and faux ancient, or whether someone more recent had broken it. What Rima didn't know was that the lamp was actually a trophy for a literary award called the Riddle Prize. As such, it had a complicated iconography involving the sphinx and a light going on. Addison had won any number of awards over the years, including this one in 1979 for Average Mean. She pre­ferred trophies that could be eaten, but there weren't so many of those.

A couple of posters were draped over one of the tallest stacks of boxes. The one on top was of Harrison Ford, rugged in a blue work shirt, a book by his knee. Rima couldn't see well enough to deter­mine its title. She tried to guess what Harrison Ford might read, but really had no idea. In any case, he wasn't reading it. She slid him aside to look at the poster underneath. This turned out to be Addison, the mobile of murder weapons dangling over her head with a balloon crayoned around them like a thought in a comic strip. She was reading Gaudy Night, which Rima knew only because she'd seen this poster before. It announced the American Library Association's Celebrity READ series and had hung in Rima's col­lege library during her freshman year. Eventually it was replaced by Antonio Banderas holding Don Quixote, and it was hard not to see this as an improvement, even if Addison was your godmother, at least when it suited your purposes to say so.

Most arresting by far was a row of plastic Santas, each about four feet tall, and strangely numerous. Rima counted eight of them, all lined up against one wall as if they were about to be shot.

The dogs had given up the mouse hunt.- Rima thought they were playing together until it became clear something less palat­able was going on. Addison leaned over to brush the top one (Berkeley) aside and pick the bottom one (Stanford) up. "They're brother and sister," she told Rima. "Fixed, of course. No conse­quences. Beyond the sheer horror of it."

Stanford shuffled in Addison's arms until his muzzle was on her shoulder. He stared morosely at Rima from under the fringe of Addison's hair. "Do you think he's gaining weight again?" Addison asked Tilda.

"Last time we were in, Dr. Sanchez said he was down a pound," Tilda said. "Celebrations all around."

"Dachshunds love to eat," Addison told Rima. "Never happier than when you're feeding them. But their backs can't handle the weight. We have to be cold and cruel." Rima remembered the breakfast of eggs and toast she'd witnessed. Some of us were colder and crueler than others.

Tilda moved along the front of the attic. The stacks were higher here, so Rima joined her, taking the flashlight and letting Tilda wrestle the bigger boxes with both hands. Rima could smell the morning hike on her. Not sweat so much as trees and dirt and underneath all that an almond-scented soap.

Tilda read the labels aloud as Rima illuminated them." `Reviews and Interviews, 1982-85.' ‘Maps and Floor Plans.' '1962 Guber­natorial Race.' ‘False Starts.' ‘Correspondence slash Letters to the Editor'?"


Packed with clues, dead ends, and the interaction between readers and fictional characters, Wit’s End is both unusual and delightful to read. By the end, you may wonder what avatar you’ll create for yourself to interact with your favorite fictional characters in some web-based world of the future.


Steve Hopkins, July 18, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the August 2008 issue of Executive Times


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