Book Review: Mr. Breakfast by Jonathan Carroll

I haven’t read any Jonathan Carroll in some time (archive shows Glass Soup in 2005) but recently learned that he had a book published in 2023 so put it on the TBR list.

Here is the publishers description for Mr. Breakfast:

Graham Patterson’s life has hit a dead end. His career as a comedian is failing. The love of his life recently broke up with him and he literally has no idea what to do next. With nothing to lose, he buys a new car and hits the road, planning to drive across country and hopefully figure out his next moves before reaching California.

But along the way Patterson does something his old self would never have even considered: he gets tattooed by a brilliant tattoo artist in North Carolina. The decision sets off a series of extraordinary events that changes his life forever in ways he never could have imagined. Among other things, Patterson is gifted with the ability to see in real time three different lives that are available to him. The choice is his: The life he is leading right now, or two very different ones. In all of them there is love or fame and of course danger because once he has chosen, there is no telling what will happen next.

Mr. Breakfast is a dazzling, absorbing and deeply moving novel about the choices that we have to confront and face, confirming Jonathan Carroll’s status as one of our greatest and most imaginative storytellers.

I gave this three stars on Goodreads. I enjoyed it and found it pretty quick read but it didn’t wow me. It is interesting to think about how various lives can be intertwined and how our choices shape and change our lives. Cliche in some ways but still profound in practice and in the hands of a skilled storyteller.

I mean, choosing between being single but famous and highly successful or having a family but an otherwise pedestrian life is not as easy a choice as one might think. A unique life or a meaningful one? Or can you have both?

Carroll explores the “What if?” elements that are created when you are given the choices Patterson has been given. But he also skillfully explores how different people and different lives might react to this choice.

There are elements of memory, chance, fate, relationships, fame, and family all interwoven with photography and art as a prominent motif. As is common with Carroll, there is also a sense of absurdism or surrealism and comedy as well.

And while I enjoyed this, and the way Carroll weaves all the tattoo bearers’, for lack of a better term, lives together at the end, it struck me as interesting but not captivating or engrossing. I am afraid the publisher oversold this with the “dazzling, absorbing, and deeply moving novel” part.

Some quotes from other reviews to give you a different perspective:

“Mr. Breakfast” is the first Carroll novel in several years, but it seems to me as masterly as his earlier books. It will surprise you, make you laugh and scare you — and then, just when you think it’s over, add several extra twists before bringing this Rubik’s Cube of a story to just the right, emotionally muted conclusion.

Michael Dirda, Washington Post

Praise from Kirkus as well.

Among Carroll’s novels, including the fabulous The Land of Laughs (1980), this is one of his most elusive—the narratives overlap and interact with a slippery interior logic. The new novel also may be his most lyrical. Few recent works of fiction in any genre have touched on the vagaries of life, love, and art more movingly or with deeper understanding.An intoxicating, deeply affecting novel by the influential fantasist.


To keep the praise fest coming…

The novel thrilled me; it made me reflect on art, love, choices, and regrets; it left me with tears in the corners of my eyes and a smile on my face. What more can a reader ask for?

Matt Keeley at Tor

But wait! Publishers Weekly rescues me from feeling like I missed something:

Together with a stable of female characters almost universally concerned with motherhood, and disabled characters built on tired stereotypes (a “spooky” blind person, a murderous schizophrenic, and a burdensome autistic child), it makes for a turgid reading experience. While the alternate realities deliver some genuine surprises alongside the occasional heartfelt meditation on the randomness of life and the futility in trying to control it, the whole is too trite to be very thought provoking. All but Carroll’s most devoted fans can skip this.

Publishers Weekly

I will leave you with a review that acknowledges some weakness but is still very positive. And you can find lots of links and information at Complete Review.

It is all terribly contrived — but also very well done. Mr. Breakfastmight not withstand much scrutiny, but it doesn’t demand it, either; instead, Carroll works comfortably and confidently within his fantasy and simply tells a good story. Mr. Breakfast is about the choices we make, but Carroll also avoids both the too simplistic and the too moralizing, making for a fiction that is a cut above the usual efforts at this kind of thing (à la Marc Levy).

Enjoyable and satisfying.

M.A. Orthofer, at The Complete Review


Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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