Janeology, Karen Harrington’s first novel, opens after Jane, young mother of toddler twins, who suffers from depression following a miscarriage, turns manic and drowns her son Adam and nearly drowns her daughter Sarah as well. This novel, however, does not tell this story from Jane’s perspective. Instead, it is told from her husband Tom’s perspective. After Jane is found innocent of Adam’s murder by reason of insanity, Tom is indicted for neglect. The state decides to prosecute him for not recognizing the depth of Jane’s illness and for leaving his children solely under her care while he went to work. This truly is something that could very easily happen today.
Once the initial shock of what has happened to his family wore off and Jane’s trial came to an end, Tom was eager to be or at least to feel punished for what happened to his family. He might not have even defended himself at all had his mother not hired an attorney. Luckily, she did, and Dave Frontella proposes a revolutionary defense strategy. In it, he holds Jane’s genealogy ultimately responsible for what happened and this was nothing that Tom could have ever known. Not only is the defense unconventional, his means of determining what it was in Jane’s genes is entirely controversial. Dave locates Jane’s half-sister Mariah, a clairvoyant. Mariah knows about a family trunk in the attic. Inside this trunk are photographs and other heirlooms of which Tom was completely unaware. She uses those to invite Jane’s ancestors to tell their stories.
Just like Tom, I had to suspend disbelief as Mariah embodies Jane as a young child. As the stories of her family keep unfolding, I was drawn more and more into the history until I was almost frustrated with Tom for being so stubborn and not admitting that things are making more and more sense. This mixture of historical fiction within a “ripped from the headlines” story worked very well for me. Tom is a college literature professor, but like many such men, he comes off as being somewhat removed from his own emotions. He is numb and could only seem to feel safe experiencing his life was back when things were right – back when he and Jane were young and in love. Jane’s ancestors, however, are quite the contrary. They are true to their nature. They are messy, they are passionate, and they are entirely flawed. I may not like them all, but I could wrap my arms around them and feel compassion. I was acutely aware that my feelings toward Jane’s ancestors mirrored those Tom held in his heart for his wife. He was unable to shake his love for Jane because he could not forget the story of their lives and love before she snapped.
Reading Janeology was a powerful experience for me. As someone who suffered from post-partum depression, I could relate to Jane very well. I could also very well understand Tom. I feel that he very much did his best to make it through Jane’s depression, hoping that one day she would come back to her family. In that way, he provided insight into what my own husband experienced. I was also lucky to have read this novel while I was in Boston because some of the most important revelations about Jane’s family centered in that city. It was thrilling for me to have come back from a three hour walking tour of historic Boston only to read about one of streets I crossed along the way. It made that section of the novel that much more real for me.
In addition to being compelling, most especially during Mariah’s sessions with Jane and her ancestors, Janeology asks a question that cannot easily be answered: How much of who you are is determined by what your ancestors were? In some ways this makes me wish I had a Mariah who could tell me the stories of my family. In other ways, I think I’d rather not know. Regardless, I enjoyed my time reading Janeology and look forward to reading Karen Harrington’s next novel.
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