Karen Joy Fowler is probably best known for her previous book, the extremely popular The Jane Austen Book Club. I read that book and enjoyed it, but it didn’t really capture my imagination and I didn’t have the urge to reread it, nor did I feel the need to go see the movie when it came out. I don’t know if Wit’s End will gather the same kind of acclaim, but for my reading tastes it’s a much more engrossing book. I read it on my trip down to Baltimore/Washington and found myself racing through it so quickly I knew there was no way I’d ever make it last through the return trip.
Wit’s End is the story of Rima, a twenty-nine-year-old former junior high teacher. I felt a connection to Rima at once because she’s described as a person who always misplaces things, including her keys. But Rima has suffered far more severe losses — her mother, when she was a girl, her adored younger brother more recently, and most recently of all the charismatic father with whom Rima has a very complicated relationship.
In the wake of all these losses, Rima is a textbook case of complicated grief, and she retreats to the Santa Cruz home of Addison Early, the godmother she barely knows. Addison is a famous mystery writer best-known for creating a popular fictional detective named Maxwell Lane. Rima is quickly drawn into the household of lively and eccentric characters (including two daschunds) at Addison’s house, Wit’s End. As she gets to know them and tries to probe the real-life mysteries surrounding her father’s relationship with Addison, Rima slowly begins to heal.
Wit’s End is the first novel I’ve ever read that addresses some really interesting questions about the craft of a fiction writer. Addison’s fictional detective has become so popular that he is the subject of online fanfic, and fans — including one potentially scary stalker — are beginning to feel that they have more ownership of Maxwell Lane than his creator, Addison, does. Meanwhile, Rima is struggling with the blurred line between fact and fiction because Addison used the name of Rima’s father as the name of a character in one of her books, and Rima thinks that might have caused the rift between her father and godmother.
These issues of who “owns” fictional characters, and what right an author has to “use” real people in a story, are absolutely fascinating, but despite the teasing promise of the cover blurbs, these are not really the main focus of the novel. Nor is the “mystery” that Rima sets out to solve on her own, even though it involves her in a few classic thriller-style scenes. The focus is much more on Rima’s journey through grief and into her own life, and on the decisions she has to make about how she is going to remember her mother, her brother and her father. Perhaps the point at which the different storylines come closest together is when we realize that our memories of our beloved dead are, in fact, not that different from a novelist’s stories about her characters: we decide what stories to tell, how we choose to remember people. And what happens when someone else challenges the story we have decided to tell?
Wit’s End got me thinking about all these things. It’s very much an idea-driven and character-driven novel, and also one in which (refreshingly), the “houseful of eccentric characters” trope is actually used in an interesting way, as each of the characters really is a well-drawn individual. Fowler’s narrative voice is dry and witty, and her occasional slides out of Rima’s viewpoint into the heads of other characters lend an added layer of richness to this thoroughly enjoyable read.