I like meta-books, books about books and writers and readers and how stories influence our lives. As someone who spends what, I admit, is probably an inordinate amount of time reading, reading about books is important and informative. Wit’s End is metafiction about mystery. Rima’s godmother, Addison Early, is a successful Agatha Christie—like mystery writer. Rima comes to stay with Addison at Wit’s End, Addison’s little refuge from the world in Santa Cruz. Cut off from the rest of the world by the loss of those closest to her, Rima is adrift. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, she latches on to stray elements from Addison’s past, determined to unearth some sort of mystery to solve.
This idea that the detectives in mystery novels have it easy because the author does the hard work of supplying the mystery is perhaps Karen Joy Fowler’s most sublime observation in the entire book. I had never thought of it that way before, but it’s true. Detectives get all the breaks: neat, orderly clues; clear-cut motivations; a nice timeline of events. Real life is much messier than that, and in many cases, as Rima discovers, the nature of the mystery is not clear.
Alas, little else about Wit’s End held my attention. Rima herself is a cipher of a character. We never really get close to her. Fowler shares morsels of backstory with a parsimony that I would envy in a science-fiction author. I got the sense that she was never really close to anyone except her late brother. With him they were a dyad; now she is a monad and unsure of how to live.
None of the other characters are all that intriguing either. Fowler tries. She alludes to Tilda’s checkered past of homelessness and alcoholism and the struggles reconnecting with her estranged adult son. Addison is supposed to be a kind of ageing grand dame, resplendent in her achievements but worried by the ticking clock on the mantle. Martin is supposed to be … I don’t know, what passes for a cad these days?
Yet all this amounts to is a series of set pieces, and static ones at that. None of the characters change much (not even Rima). I kept expecting Addison to get tetchy when Rima continued to prod Addison’s past and look into Holy City. I kept expecting a fight, or at least an argument—nothing. Aside from that very real, very rewarding moment between Rima and Martin, the emotions in this book are flat. Even when Rima winds out trapped in a house with her “stalker,” Fowler manages to puncture the tension building in the room and replace it with an underwhelming, albeit humourous, resolution.
In its attempts to be a character-driven story centred on Rima, Wit’s End fizzles out into a boring book where nothing happens. The promise that this book’s cover copy makes—that this would be about how Addison’s fans have taken over her characters and plotlines—never materializes. There are references to fanfic (especially slashfic) and Wikipedia pages and blog comments, but it’s all ancillary. That would have made for a more interesting story. Still, this is not merely a case of a book misrepresented by its description.
I enjoyed the way Fowler uses Addison to share one type of writer’s perspective on readers. But that’s about it. The characters in this book are dull; the plot is largely a collection of unrelated events; as a protagonist, Rima is about as interesting as paint that has very nearly dried. Fowler can do much better, and you, as a reader, can do much better.