Booth by Karen Joy Fowler

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

Booth, as the title would suggest, is a fictionalized biography of not just presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth, but his entire family as well. (And they were a particularly interesting family!) I think it was the author’s intent to show John Wilkes within his family milieu to both humanize him and suggest how he came to be an Angry White Man With a Gun. I don’t think the author entirely succeeds in this aim, and as a result the novel stumbles where it might have soared.

If you are not up on the nineteenth-century theater, you probably don’t know that John was merely the least of the Booth family members performing upon the stage. His father, Junius Booth, was considered the greatest tragedian of his time, and his brothers Junius Jr. and Edwin were well-regarded actors in their own rights. Even his brother-in-law, Sleeper Clarke, a comedian, was better known than John. Sisters Rosalie and Asia and a largely absent brother, Joe, round out the six Booth siblings who survived to adulthood.

Each chapter is told from the viewpoint of a different sibling, which gives the narrative a strange and halting gait. The sisters are by far the most compelling narrators, especially Rosalie, an invalid who hears the ghosts of her dead siblings and tipples gin in her tea. I would have like to see the entire book written from Rosalie’s point of view. The author also inexplicably chose to preface each chapter with a quotation and a short vignette from the life of Abraham Lincoln–John Wilkes Booth’s fated victim. This breaks up the cadence even more, with no benefit to the novel that I can discern.

The author has obviously done extensive research on the Booth family, and the descriptions of daily life are beautifully drawn and highly realistic. I think she might have had better luck writing a nonfiction biography of the Booth family, or else a less ambitious novel focusing on a single sibling (Rosalie is my pick, but Asia Booth Clarke would be good too).

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC FOWLER)

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