"Wouldn’t that be impossible?” I asked. “Wouldn’t that be a paradox?”
Tesla laughed. “You watch too many old movies,” he said. “No paradoxes, Mr. Neff. The universe will not end if you decide to go back in time to kill your grandfather before you were ever born. You’d just have a dead grandfather.”
The man who lives at that house at the end of Primrose Lane has always been an odd sort. He always wears mittens (regardless of time of year or temperature) and is a true recluse, keeping completely to himself (save for the occasional interaction with a teenager who fetches the man any necessities). This man—the man with a thousand mittens, the man from Primrose Lane—lives a quiet, solitary life until one warm day in 2008, when he is murdered.
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David Neff, a 30-something true crime journalist and author, has made his fortune on solving a cold case that ended with the institutionalization of a child molester and murderer. The story that made him famous, however, comes at a high price; as David grapples with PTSD and an inability to write while medicated, his wife Elizabeth kills herself shortly after giving birth to their son Tanner. Elizabeth’s suicide is just two days before the murder of the man from Primrose Lane.
David is persuaded to take on one last case, to write the story of the mittened, murdered man. As he delves into the mystery, he discovers that his own life and that of his late wife intersect and tangle with that of the nameless man. And, as his obsession with the case reaches a fever-pitch, David learns many truths and horrors that transcend both time and space.
Well. You might be wondering, dear reader, why we are featuring a review of a book that sounds like a noir-ish, gumshoe crime thriller. On the other side of that coin, I’m also certain that many readers of James Renner's The Man From Primrose Lane will wonder just what hit them when this traditional-seeming murder mystery transitions into a time-travelling, theoretical physics–crazed, multiverse-spanning work of science fiction (with a dose of Stephen King-ish navel gazing and supernatural horror to boot). The first two-thirds of The Man From Primrose Lane are focused on David’s past, unfolding the history between Elizabeth and himself, while simultaneously expanding his investigation of the eponymous character. The last third, however, twists this setup, taking both Neff and readers on a wild ride through a dystopian future Ohio, and back through time.
It would be unfair, however, to say that the time travelling/future dystopia SFF stuff comes out of nowhere; there are little hints dropped throughout the early chapters of the book. Easter Eggs (pun intended, for those who have read the book), if you will, are strewn throughout that come to fruition in the book’s frenzied revelatory act. There’s an amount of uncertainty throughout the narrative. Is David simply losing it, having psychotic episodes as he goes off the meds? Or is everything he discovers truly happening? In form, too, the book skittles from past to present to future, eschewing linear storytelling for a more complicated tangle of perspectives and decades. While this can get confusing (especially in those late chapters, when the first-person perspective shifts), with some effort, it works.
Just a few more scattershot items to whet the appetite: I loved that the time travel is complex, but actually makes sense. Everything that happens to David and the lives he touches follow a logical continuum. No small feat, considering all of the different realities the story encompasses. I love the inclusion of a certain cat (no, not Schrödinger's), and the Beezle/Beelzebub supernatural universe course-correcting facet of the story. I love that while there is no going home again for any time traveler, there is the capacity for happiness. I love the book’s dedication and eerily fitting opening epigraph.
My only complaints? David, born in 1978, is a 34-year-old protagonist but sounds far older than his years, exemplified by his comfort level with the internet, his love of microfiche and certain anachronisms that felt more in-tune with a middle-aged protagonist than a relatively young man (not implausible, given that author Renner is the same age as Neff, but still somewhat jarring). The aforementioned navel-gazing, comparing the life and works of protagonist Neff with author Renner (both Ohio based, Kent State alums, with similar backgrounds and past publications under their belts), is a little on the heavy-handed side. Finally, there’s the portrayal of the three central female figures in the text—Elizabeth, her abducted twin Elaine, and new gal Katy—all of whom seem to exist solely as objects of obsession for David. This makes sense, given that Primrose Lane is David’s story, and the female characters are filtered through his admittedly disturbing obsessive personality. That said, the one-note she-witch figure of blogger Cindy leaves a bitter aftertaste; I’m not convinced her character was necessary for any development in the text. Furthermore, it bothers me that the only other female character in the text that doesn’t require rescue at the hands of David is made to look like an incompetent, vindictive bitch. (Your mileage may vary, though, as they say.)
For all that, I appreciated and enjoyed The Man From Primrose Lane. Though this is a challenging book and the nuanced, tangled timelines are tough to navigate, it’s a rewarding read. Take it from this science fiction fan and give Primrose Lane a try.
In Book Smugglerish, a time-travelling, frog-hatching, eggtastic 7 out of 10.