Is a tendency toward dysfunctional relationships and violent behavior inherited? Is it learned through what a child experiences and witnesses in the family of origin? Is a dark family history the result of the Biblical edict that the "sins of the fathers (and/or mothers) will be visited upon the children"? Karen Harrington's novel Janeology considers all of these questions...and, to my mind, never definitively answers them or comes down in favor of one explanation over another. I consider this to be one of its strengths.
Literature professor Tom Nelson is summoned home by the police one June day to find that his wife Jane has attempted to drown their twin children; the girl, Sarah, is in critical condition, and the boy, Simon, is dead. Jane has been struggling with depression and has had difficulty dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage, but the concept of a mother killing her own children is always shocking - not the least for her husband. Jane is tried for the crime, found not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to a mental hospital; Tom struggles with his own sense of guilt and the raising of his motherless daughter. When the state pursues a follow-up criminal case against Tom for "failure to protect" - implying that he should have been aware his wife posed a danger to his children - his defense attorney proposes a defense based on Jane's family history. The problem is that Tom actually knows very little of her family history - but with the help of his lawyer and a clairvoyant who uses "retrocognition" to bring up memories through people's possessions, and with a fair amount of skepticism, he prepares to find out.
Jane has kept a trunk containing various mementos passed down through both sides of her family, but has never shared its contents or their stories with her husband. As Mariah, the clairvoyant, handles various articles from the trunk and channels their owner's stories to Tom and his lawyer, Dave, they learn about generations of secrets kept and harm done, in one way or another, by parents on to their children. Is it enough to convince a jury that Jane was somehow pre-disposed to commit the act she did, and that Tom could neither have seen it coming or stopped it?
Janeology raises some fascinating questions, and the story is engrossing. Personally, retrocognition falls in with a bunch of other New-Agey stuff I don't buy into, but it was an interesting device for conveying the stories of Jane's ancestors. Harrington skillfully gives each of these characters a distinct voice and presence. The character development is strong throughout the book, with one exception - Jane herself, who we really only know through her husband's eyes. I have the sense that this is a deliberate choice on the writer's part, though, and I think it's effective. However, I was bothered throughout the book by the fact that Tom really had known so little of his wife's background, and had seemed fine with that up to this point - it's probably not unique, but I do find it disturbing. Then again, I find a lot of behavior based on ignorance of history, let alone willful disregard for it, disturbing, so I'm sure that colored my perceptions.