Riveting ... Fowler has never shirked from a challenge. In this novel, her task is how to contextualize someone whose flaws and fatal misguidedness forever skewed our history ... The climax of the overarching national narrative hangs like a miasma over the novel. We all know the terrible ending. What elevates Booth is the granular texture of what’s beneath the bald facts: the how and the myriad whats and whys, the truths. And there is also Fowler’s trademark dark humor ... If Fowler’s seventh novel occasionally sags from the depth of her prodigious research, Booth is still a massive achievement. In it, Fowler weaves history, family culture, and human cruelties into an insightful reckoning of a past that seems too much a prologue to our American present.
An interesting historical novel about a family in 19th-century America, whose story begins in theatrical celebrity and ends in notoriety, broken by the Civil War and the irreconcilable convictions it exposed and the bloody passions they unleashed ... Fowler's portrayal of the theater business, high and low, is fascinating in its particulars ... . But everything that happens, however thoroughly engaging the Booths and the reader, is shot through with our awareness of what's coming, which makes for an odd sort of suspense — a suspense complicated by the sense that this play never really ended, and that we have yet to contend with this darkness at the heart of the American drama.
... exquisite ... Yes, we know even before we turn the first page where the intertwined timelines of the Booths and American history will lead, but Fowler’s deftly imagined family portrait keeps us riveted. Her exploration of the pathways by which a seemingly private family melodrama can bleed into public savagery illuminates not just a single household’s, but an entire country’s toxic dysfunction. That we are still grappling with the Civil War era’s legacy lends Fowler’s chronicle an inescapable contemporary resonance and underlines anew Shakespeare’s timeless observation that what is past is prologue and that we forget it at our peril ... The strategy may seem counterintuitive — would we be reading this book if not for John? — but it works brilliantly. The siblings’ varied ages, temperaments and angles of vision collide and overlap like a kaleidoscope, reflecting ever-changing internal family alliances and recurring quarrels ... Fowler has based her telling of this tale on solid historical research. She also intersperses her narrative with excerpts from Lincoln’s speeches and other historical commentaries on the intensifying conflict between North and South. But there will be no exit from the Booth family drama, or the theater of the Civil War, until we arrive at Washington, D.C.’s Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. The actors have long left the stage, Fowler notes, but the ghosts remain, still haunting us today.
If it sounds tedious to witness an author grapple with tension for 470 pages, that would be an accurate forecast of the reading experience. It’s impossible to summarize the plot of Booth. There’s far too much of it ... There is nothing wrong with chronicling what people do and how they feel about it, of course. This is the terrain of novels. The problem is how Fowler goes about it, which is in prose that is alternately sleepy and mawkish ... More distracting than the emotional banalities are the verbal clichés ... All of this would be bad writing from a high school student. Coming from an author of Fowler’s achievements — she was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and received a PEN/Faulkner Award the same year — it feels more like malpractice ... Transitions are often information dumps ... Amid all this are tepid daubs of period detail: fluttering lace curtains, torn crinolines, crackling fires. These complaints would be nit-picking if they were exceptional rather than representative ... ohn Wilkes Booth is too lightly sketched to register as monstrous. And the ones who would love him — entombed as they are in trite conventions of thought and feeling — barely register at all.
It’s a dizzying blitz of events and places, each of which might serve as the seed of another novel. Through its first half, Booth is—like almost any other family saga published in the last decade or so—both slickly narrative and morbidly lyrical ... There are slightly folksy descriptions of farm life—chores, carrying babies—punctuated by bursts of brilliant writing that briefly lift this novel above its predictable rhythms ... Booth is, in some sense, a chronicle of Johnny’s transformation. It’s also an indictment of the very idea of decent white people. I am sympathetic to this idea, but I found it rather a boring premise for a novel ... Fowler’s family saga is so full of summarized scenes that there’s scarcely any room for probing interiority, resulting in a psychologically and philosophically thin account of family life ... the characters sound like naïve children their whole lives. There are no depths, no shadows, no surprises. The closest this novel comes to insight is to portray the naïveté with which the good white Booth children say mildly clueless things about the effect of slavery on the Black family they’ve grown up with on the farm. Instead of insight, Fowler traffics in images and scenes, gestures, little motifs. In some sense, the novel is devoid of any signs of intelligent life at all. Yet Fowler is a fine writer ... I sat up straight every time one of the Booth men took to the stage to perform. Nevertheless, Booth has all the bite of a children’s story. It was ultimately too amiable to be of much comfort or much use.
... the novel both is, and isn’t, a build-up to that moment [of Lincoln's assassination]. How to deal with the narrative problem of John Wilkes and this inevitable climax is (as Fowler acknowledges in the author’s note) there on nearly every page. She handles it adroitly, interweaving Booth’s story with that of his parents and siblings, a tale that’s colourful and tragic enough in its own right ... History may claim to be about facts, but stories, like families, are largely about feeling, and the novel gives us feeling on a grand scale, even as it asks pertinent and topical questions about who owns those facts ... It’s a pity, then, that after so much bravura storytelling the last part of the book sometimes reads like a curt historical precis, as if Fowler has finally been overwhelmed by the weight of her material—or perhaps the simple and entirely creditable desire not to misrepresent it. But this hardly matters. In its stretch and imaginative depth, Booth has an utterly seductive authority. Fowler has pulled off that supremely difficult thing in a historical novel: to convince us that there are things she may have made up, but which are nevertheless true.
In a novel that hews closely to the well-documented historical record, Fowler seeks to find compelling resonances with contemporary America ... In Booth, Fowler again connects social and private conflict, profitably exploring America’s troubled early history and the richly human family from which a presidential assassin emerged ... Unfortunately, the author spends too much time in the Booths’ childhood, and we often need to be reminded what year it is and how old each of the siblings are. Adding to the languors, Fowler’s sentences are mostly flat and she makes few attempts at literary style or period speech. But the slow accretion of family story starts to pay off in the second half of the novel ... Leavening the tragedy, Booth contains some enlightening description of American theatre in the 19th century ... The tragedy of racial hatred runs through a novel that consistently reminds us that the nation was built on slavery ... Fowler individualises the novel’s important black characters, based on real figures ... The Booths have receded into history, but in Fowler’s telling their stories — personal and political — remain painfully relevant.
Extraordinarily dark ... Fowler’s fictionalised account of the assassin John Wilkes Booth and his family is unrelentingly harsh from the beginning ... [Fowler] knows her way around plot and characterisation and gives her protagonists convincing, unique voices. In those respects Booth is an accomplished and polished work. Yet the unrelenting nihilism of a story where everyone is sad, hopeless and ill may make it too sour to swallow for readers who responded to the more lively emotional textures of her previous writing ... All but the most perverse buyer will hope for some chink of light...but Asia’s mournful conclusion that 'there is no solidity in love, no truth in friendship' sums up the bitter tone of the whole book and makes one hard pushed to recommend it to anyone apart from, perhaps, the parents of surly teenagers wanting to show them how horrible life was in the old days.
In this canny and disturbing piece of historical fiction, she creates a portrait not just of a killer but also of the killer's family ... Fowler's words read as chillingly apt today ... That's what makes Booth so unsettling and thrilling: the many parallels between the Booth family's era and the present day ... It is a grim reminder that, throughout history, families of murderers have had to discover the answer, and more are likely to follow.
... abounds in implicit parallels with today’s polarized society, including the breakdown of civility in Congress and beyond, and attempts to block voters’ rights. Lincoln’s warnings concerning the tyrant and the mob ring loud and clear in the wake of the events of January 6, 2021 ... Solid research mixed with empathetic imagination enriches Booth ... Fowler’s narrative is packed with drama, both onstage and off, long before John Wilkes Booth’s heinous act. But there’s no getting around the fact that the assassination overshadows the novel as it artfully – but slowly – builds to what we know is coming ... The book is filled with the vicissitudes of touring actors’ lives. Fowler captures the brilliant patriarch’s erratic behavior, exacerbated by alcoholism, a condition shared by several of his offspring, including John ... Through it all, there’s a dark strain of dissolution and insanity, but also a firm conviction held by most of the family that slavery is evil ... Fowler intersperses the family’s saga with brief glimpses into Lincoln’s choppy road to the White House and into the crosshairs of enraged anti-abolitionists. These historical interludes provide welcome background on what was going on in the country while the Booths were absorbed in pulling off their umpteenth performances of Richard III and Hamlet.
... a dazzling blend of fact and fiction with piercing echoes to today—women’s lives subsumed by child care, a violent and polarized America, men warped by whiteness and power and delusions of grandeur. Even without John Wilkes Booth’s chilling role in U.S. history, the family is a novelist’s dream: celebrated and reviled, alternately flush with cash or near starving, plagued by questions of honor and illegitimacy, its members beautiful and brilliant and tight-knit. Fowler’s excavation of this material is astonishing in its breadth and specificity, treating events of historical record with the same detail and care as secret bedtime talks and plays staged in treetops ... Our immersion in this family is so intoxicating, so complete, for a time we almost forget where darling brother John is headed; I felt something like complicity, having spent so many pages watching him ... Booth does not simply report on the past. Instead, it points with deliberate intensity and no small amount of criticism—at the hypocrisies of our present moment, at the story of America that’s still being written.
Booth is immensely enjoyable and often exceptionally poignant, especially through its characterisation of the unmarried, dutiful sister Rosalie and her brother Edwin, who himself became a renowned actor. John, from his early days as one of the Baltimore Bully Boys to his self-pitying, petulant rants at his more successful peers, is glimpsed largely elliptically, through the concerns his loving family have for him and, finally, through their deep distress at his fate. It’s an approach that ably demonstrates that if you set aside the urge to solve a puzzle, you’ll come up with far more interesting questions.
... profound and empathetic ... What can the inflamed passions, political extremism, stark division and racism of a wounded 19th-century America teach us about our country in its 21st century? In Fowler’s capable hands, plenty, and more than is comfortable ... Booth doesn’t hold anyone in judgment; like all the best literature, it seeks to better understand the human heart in all its flawed complexity. It’s a haunting book, not just for all its literal ghosts, but for its suggestion that those ghosts still have not been exorcised from this country.
Fowler addresses the issue of writing a historical novel about a historical bad guy in an innovative way. She doesn’t only expand her novel’s palette, telling the decades-spanning story of the entire Booth family, a clan in which John is one among many until the fateful moment he makes himself the family’s—and the nation’s—villain. She makes the audacious decision to bring a historian’s corrective and contextual voice to her historical fiction, pulling the reader out of the 19th century over and over to provide a 21st century perspective on the attitudes and actions of her characters. This makes a bit of a mess of the novel, but also serves as an intriguing new angle at a problem that’s likely to vex historical fiction writers for decades to come ... The Booths are incapable of understanding, but we are capable, and the typical historical novel might take that as a given—or at least merely suggest that note through action or dialogue. Fowler does not. She seems determined at every turn to overtly address the caution and concern she feels about telling this story, about this family, at this time ... This can get clunky. The novel occasionally seems to abjure entirely the imaginative leaps of fiction to deliver nonfiction-style exposition ... is at its most affecting, though, when it’s at its most imaginative.
I felt...mesmerized as I devoured the 480 pages of Karen Joy Fowler’s triumph of a historical novel, Booth. I was torn by conflicting urges: to race ahead to see what happens next, or to read slowly and savor Fowler’s exquisite language and fascinating rendering of the various members of this legendary American family ... Many readers will begin Booth with the basic knowledge that John Wilkes Booth came from a famous theatrical family, but it’s unlikely that they’ll know just how celebrated and fascinating the Booths were ... The story is told primarily by three of John Wilkes’ siblings—Rosalie, Edwin and Asia—all of whom are equally fascinating and well voiced. Early scenes narrated by Rosalie are particularly powerful and memorable. Fowler includes short passages about Lincoln and his family, ratcheting up the tension of what’s to come. With a master’s touch, she also incorporates vital depictions of racism through the lives of an enslaved family that works on the Booth farm, and shows how the issue of enslavement divides the Booth family through the years ... Like the very best historical novels, Booth is a literary feast, offering much more than a riveting story and richly drawn characters. It offers a wealth of commentary about not only our past but also where we are today, and where we may be headed.
Interspersed with the lives of the Booths are cherry-picked Lincoln quotations along with a didactic political history meant to relate events to current politics ... Fowler presents an omniscient, bird’s-eye view of these lives, along with a nod to what could be apocryphal. The result is an engrossing portrayal of a nineteenth-century family living through the U.S.’ most turbulent era.
Fowler’s novel explores tensions surrounding race, politics, and culture in 19th-century America ... The historical context she offers is of a pre–Civil War America of deep moral divides, political differences tearing close families apart, populism and fanaticism run amok ... The similarities to today are riveting and chilling.
Razor-sharp ... Fowler sets the stage in remarkable prose, and in her account of the Booth family’s move from rural Maryland to Baltimore in 1846...she subtly conveys the depth of her characters ... Throughout, the nuanced plot is both historically rigorous and richly imagined. This is a winner.