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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Mr. Breakfast

Jonathan Carroll

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To purchase Mr. Breakfast

Title: Mr. Breakfast
Author: Jonathan Carroll
Genre: Novel
Written: (2023)
Length: 261 pages
Availability: Mr. Breakfast - US
Mr. Breakfast - UK
Mr. Breakfast - Canada
Mr. Breakfast - Italia
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Mr. Breakfast was published in Polish and Italian translations in 2020, but the original English version was only first published in 2023

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid storytelling and cleverly built up

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 9/1/2023 James Lovegrove
The Guardian A 13/1/2023 Lisa Tuttle
The Washington Post A 20/1/2023 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Mr Breakfast is worth the wait. (...) Mr Breakfast is a tale of regret and reincarnation, of second chances arriving perhaps too late. Its narrative strands are folded inside one another and the whole thing is couched in pristine prose. To Carroll, the mundane can yield unexpected delight and danger, making everyday lives fascinating." - James Lovegrove, Financial Times

  • "Every bit as inventive and engaging as the best of his earlier novels, and still with a sinister edge, this is more dream than nightmare, and a pure delight to read." - Lisa Tuttle, The Guardian

  • "Yet through it all, Patterson ponders the overarching question: What ultimately matters most to him ? Wealth and fame ? Satisfying work? Art ? Love and family ? (...) Such metaphysical questions, which recur throughout Carroll’s work, invest Mr. Breakfast with a distinctive moral dimension. (...) 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, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Mr. Breakfast begins with one James Arthur interviewing a Ruth Murphy. James is researching a biography, about famed -- and now vanished -- photographer Graham Patterson (one of whose best-known photographs is titled 'Mr. Breakfast'), and Ruth had lived with Patterson before he became famous, the two splitting up because she wanted children and he wasn't sure he did.
       Patterson had long tried his hand at being a stand-up comedian, but just couldn't break through. He finally decided to give it up, and was traveling cross-country to settle into a much more conventional life when he found himself briefly stuck in a town in North Carolina. He chanced upon a tattoo parlor there -- and on the spur of the moment decided to get a tattoo from Japanese trained local Anna Mae Collins.
       Looking through her sample-book, Patterson selects the right tattoo -- or at least one that comes with some special powers. It is a bit complicated and very contrived, but it gives Carroll the foundations for his story, and he displays a sure hand in using it effectively and not getting too bogged down in it (as can easily happen with such fantastical premises). Basically, the tattoo gives Patterson the opportunity to change lives, giving him three to choose from: the one he is living now and two other paths he could have gone down at points in the past, leading to very different lives. The tattoo gives him a chance to get a look at and feel for these other two lives -- and then:

When you're ready, you'll choose one of your three and live it until you die. The moment you do decide which you prefer, you'll forget you ever had a choice, and the tattoo will disappear.
       There are a few additional constraints: he can only visit each of the other two lives three times each ("and a fourth to get back here at the end to this life, if it's necessary") -- and, as he learns rather late in the day, he can only dawdle for so long: "There is a time limit on this deal" (as eventually a personal undertow comes to the fore, "pulling you back to your past and tossing you around between now and then" -- "You do not want that to happen"). Complicating matters, there's also an afterlife. and at one point Patterson meets some of his (deceased) former classmates and gets the low-down from one of them: "the dead teenager showed dead Graham Patterson everything he has said about reincarnation was true", with Patterson then also getting a glimpse of one of his reïncarnations.
       As someone tells him:
     Everything is nuts about this situation, Graham. Our tattoo is a magic lamp. It makes impossible things happen, whether we like them or not.
       Carroll doesn't try to impose or make much sense of it and just runs with the idea. It allows him to put Patterson in different situations and consider which life might be preferable -- whereby one of the options is pretty much immediately out of the running, so that simplifies matters, too. We get glimpses of domestic lives, and of Patterson as comedian -- both successful and not --, and Patterson the successful photographer.
       Neither Patterson nor Carroll show much sense of urgency, leaving Patterson taking his time making up his mind: as someone eventually notes: "It's been years since you got the tattoo, but still no choice". Patterson seems fine taking his time, and the reader is mostly fine with it too; the premise and the way Carroll presents the story allows for passage across time and scenes depicting a variety of life-choices -- and Carroll is very good on these set scenes and often seemingly chance and off-beat encounters.
       Of course, eventually there has to be a resolution -- and this too Carroll handles well; indeed, he really raises his game here. Throughout the novel, there's been the parallel story of would-be biographer James Arthur, trying to figure out Patterson and what happened to him. He, too, finds his way to the North Carolina tattoo parlor .....
       Carroll's repeated circling through past and present, which long seemed merely slow filler -- interesting, but not all that remarkable -- pays off handsomely as the story nears it conclusion, as we suddenly find the different threads are much closer than they had originally seemed. What looked like a story of disparate lives and fates turns out to be very closely connected -- down to the then also final overlaps of the resolution. Mr. Breakfast proves to be a very carefully and intricately structured novel.
       An objective analysis would find the story's premises and build-up flimsy, and much of it arguably ridiculous, but Carroll shows a sure hand in the handling of it, unconcerned about any plausibility -- the fantastical elements are simply givens, no questions asked -- and going with the flow. The years of Patterson's vacillation -- and the scenes from other times -- pass by (or rather meld) in one agreeable blur, the scenes from lives highlighted vignettes from along the way. Life is presented much more as circular rather than simple, strict progression, Carroll's characters dipping into various aspects along the way. The two main strains are professional dedication and (or versus) family life, but here too each isn't simply a binary choice; everything is a mixed blessing.
       It is all terribly contrived -- but also very well done. Mr. Breakfast might 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, 15 January 2023

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Mr. Breakfast: Reviews: Jonathan Carroll: Other books by Jonathan Carroll under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author Jonathan Carroll was born in 1949. He graduated from Rutgers University and the University of Virginia, and has lived most his life in Vienna, Austria.

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© 2023 the complete review

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