Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club ( July/Aug 2004) was a best seller, a book group favorite, and a New York Times Notable Book. Wit’s End similarly (but less successfully) explores our relationship to books and the fictional characters we take to be real.
The Story: In 2006, after the loss of her own family, Rima Lanisell arrives at Wit’s End, her godmother Addison Early’s home in Santa Cruz, California. Addison is a famous mystery writer, and soon Rima is looking into all sorts of details of Addison’s life—the relationship between Addison and Rima’s recently deceased father, the tiny dollhouse corpses that inspire Addison’s books, and Addison’s detective hero Maxwell Lane, who was "born" in the town where Addison and Rima’s father met. As Rima tries to uncover her roots and becomes herself an object of interest for Addison’s fans of Maxwell Lane, the lines between fact and fiction start to blur.
Putnam. 324 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0399154752
"Fowler’s characters chat casually about Lost, Prison Break, 24, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, and more. She really does capture what it’s like to be a post-millennial pop-culture junkie without beating the theme into readers’ heads. … I can’t recommend it highly enough." Simon Vozick-Levinson
"[Her books are] the kind of juicy but easy-on-your-nerves books you might find on the shelves of a trusted bibliophile friend’s beach house, next to Anne Tyler or Lee Smith. … She tackles difficult subjects but always returns you to some cozy, domestic room, where the food and conversation is good, so not to worry." Tricia Snell
"Fowler’s aim is to disorient her readers from the outset—and to get them to work out the novel’s puzzles with her. … On the down side, the prose can be surprisingly flat—perhaps in a misguided effort to render Rima’s straight-arrow essence?" Michael Upchurch
"Everything about this mystery-soaked set-up promises high entertainment (and high sales), but the biggest riddle of all is why Wit’s End is ultimately so unengaging. … Although there’s plenty of sensational material here—charismatic sex-fiend! suicide! murder!—these events remain distant, not so much mysterious as merely vague, and despite the accumulation of little clues, we’re never given much reason to care." Ron Charles
"Alas, Wit’s End is merely an inviting premise. … It’s mostly the limp and lackluster protagonists—writer Addison Early, her visiting goddaughter, Rima Lanisell, and Early’s housekeeper, Tilda—who deprive this novel of its life force." Carol Memmott
Critical reception of Wit’s End ran the full gamut. Like The Jane Austen Book Club, the novel should appeal to lovers of mystery books and to readers who enjoy pondering the relationship between characters, their creators, and their fan bases. Yet while these critics couldn’t put the book down, others panned it. Pop culture references, such as the Internet Wiki-wars (where fans analyze Maxwell Lane’s life), perhaps make up for what some critics described as relatively insipid characters and mysteries. (The cranky Addison might be the exception.) Wit’s End may promise more than it delivers, but its central concern—how identities can be forged and reshaped—is still provoking and smart.