This is the first book of Fowler’s I’ve read, and I didn’t know what to expect. I checked it out of the library because learning more about the famous, or infamous, Booth family intrigued me.
For those who don’t know, John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Lincoln, was a younger son of a famous family of 19th-century Anglo-American actors. Their father, Junius Brutus Booth, was highly acclaimed as was John’s older brother Edwin. Another brother, Junius Jr., was also an actor although not as highly regarded. I already knew from past research that during the Civil War Edwin actually saved the life of Abraham Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert—an event that can truly be described as stranger than fiction. So I wondered what other surprising things I might learn about the Booths.
The book is divided into sections offering the point of view of different members of the family, including sisters Rosalie and Asia and brother Edwin. In the author’s note at the end, Fowler tells us that although Rosalie existed, almost nothing is known about her—her existence in the surviving family records is summed up by the repeated epithet “poor Rose”—so that narrator is an almost entirely fictional creation. In Fowler’s hands, she is old-fashioned, less gifted than her creative siblings, unusually close to her mother, haunted by the memory of the many brothers and sisters who died young, and in constant pain from worsening scoliosis.
Asia is devoted to her family, particularly her brothers. To her, being a Booth is everything, so she plans to chronicle the careers of her thespian father and brothers. Yet, she is unconventional in her own way and provides an entirely different perspective on the Booth tribe than her much older sister does. Asia is the one who most represents what it is like to adore a relative who later commits a monstrous public crime.
Edwin is the Booth most haunted by the legacy of the family patriarch. As a boy, he was charged with accompanying his father on tour and trying (impossibly) to keep him from drinking. Edwin longs without much hope for Junius Sr. to acknowledge him as the heir best equipped to carry on the Booth acting legacy. These family obligations and his own personal failings oppress Edwin for years, along with a growing rift with John, who becomes increasingly radical as the war marches to its bloody end.
This then is the family that produces the assassin who became perhaps the most vilified American of the late 1800s. The book sustained my interest throughout; the shifting points of view provide sometimes contradictory opinions that help show what a tangle it can be to sort out what goes into the making of a killer.
My main complaint, however, is that the novel felt to me more like an intellectual exercise rather than an emotional journey. I remained largely unmoved even by the end of the story, and for that reason, I feel that the book falls short of the great novel it might have been.