Updated: Oct 6, 2022
Karen Joy Fowler’s new book is but isn’t the story of John Wilkes Booth, assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Is but isn’t because it tells the story of the circumstances that turned a beloved son into a murderer without putting too much focus on the assassination itself. John Wilkes is not born until a good chunk into the story. First we learn about his family. The great Shakespeare actor Junius Booth who left England to escape accusations of bigamy and moved his second wife to rural Maryland were they had ten children – six survive infancy. We learn about the tumultuous family wife from multiple points of view. The oldest surviving daughter Rosalie, shy and lonely, observes her younger siblings’ childhood. Three of the sons follow their father’s footsteps onto the stage, the fourth one we hardly learn anything about. It is temperamental Asia through whom we learn most about John Wilkes. They had always shared a special bond. We follow their lives through decades and across the US and interspersed are scenes of Lincoln’s life to remind the reader which part of history we are witnessing. Through the Booth’s eyes we see the world change as political convictions clash – married within their family.
And that is the extent to which I can summarise Booth’s plot, without getting lost in details: there are just too many of them. It feels like Booth should have been my kind of novel: historical fiction, family saga, multiple points of view, theatre world, feminist commentary… but it was just quite boring. Karen Joy Fowler tried to shift between historical facts and personal emotions but it did not turn out quite right. There was too little of the former, and way too much of the latter. Her images and explanations are often trite and clichéd. I found myself thinking I should like this book, but I just could not get excited about picking it up again. Booth simply tries to do too much. There were great moments, and the pace picked up during the last 50 pages, but unfortunately that was about 400 pages too late. Reading the acknowledgements I understand why she constructed it the way she did – wanting to tell the story without giving John Wilkes Booth too much attention and rather centring the question of what happens to the people who love someone that becomes a “monster.” However, for most of the book we only read a glorified version of John Wilkes through Asia’s eyes and hardly have time to get more than a glimpse at how the siblings deal with the assassination before the novel comes to an ending that (even after 470 pages) feels rather rushed.