Review: DON’T I KNOW YOU? by Marni Jackson (Flatiron Books)

don’t i know you? comp18.epsA peculiar, interesting novel about self and celebrity

What if some of the artists we feel as if we know — Meryl Streep, Neil Young, Bill Murray — turned up in the course of our daily lives? 

This is what happens to Rose McEwan, an ordinary woman who keeps having strange encounters with famous people. In this engrossing, original novel-in-stories, we follow her life from age 17, when she takes a summer writing course led by a young John Updike, through her first heartbreak (witnessed by Joni Mitchell) on the island of Crete, through her marriage, divorce, and a canoe trip with Taylor Swift, Leonard Cohen and Karl Ove Knausgaard. (Yes, read on.)

With wit and insight, Marni Jackson takes a world obsessed with celebrity and turns it on its head. In Don’t I Know You?, she shows us how fame is just another form of fiction, and how, in the end, the daily dramas of an ordinary woman’s life can be as captivating and poignant as any luminary tell-all.

This is a peculiar novel. Blending a fictional life story with real-life celebrity cameos, the story has a lot to say about how we see famous people, what we expect of them, and also what we expect of and how we see ourselves. Don’t I Know You? isn’t perfect, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The first thing you notice is that Jackson is a very good writer: her prose is excellent, and flows very well. Her fictional characters are well-rounded, interesting and distinct. Her fictional takes on real people are well-drawn, too. Rose is a sympathetic character, and I enjoyed seeing her grow up over the course of the chapters — from her writing course with John Updike (a surprising intimacy between her and the author), her disastrous trip to Crete, and onwards through life as she writes her novels and copy for an appliance/homeware company. There are plenty of scenes that are funny, or heartwarming, or sad. Rose’s life covers the full spectrum of human emotion, and her reactions are realistic and change as she matures (in terms of actual and emotional ages).

For those celebrities I’m familiar with, I think Jackson’s done a good job of capturing their public personas and characters — Adam Driver, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, Meryl Streep and Bill Murray, in particular, were very good. Sometimes, the celebrities are peripheral to the story being told in their given chapter, but at other times they are far more central. Some of the meetings are fleeting, while others are far more involved — Meryl Streep’s part in the story ends up being both. The camping trip at the end was bizarre, but entertaining. The summer with Bob Dylan was amusing, but also peculiar.

In fact, I think “peculiar” is perhaps the best way to describe this novel. It is not meant as a negative. Once you accept that the celebrities in the novel are effectively personifications of how Rose perceives them (and, by extension, society in general, I suppose), it’s easier to distance oneself from the reality of them. They are her own projections of how she wants them to be and behave, so the reader has no difficulty accepting the fact that, for example, Adam Driver spends some winters in Toronto shovelling snow. Through her interactions with them, and the other people in her life of course, she is able to navigate the challenges she faces — from infidelity, to career struggles, to family drama. It’s a really well-done narrative device.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, and I certainly enjoyed it. If you’re looking for something a little different, then I’d certainly recommend this. I’m looking forward to reading Jackson’s next book, whatever it happens to be.

*

Marni Jackson‘s Don’t I Know You? is out now, published by Flatiron Books, and is also available in the UK.

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