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There are magical islands in Rachel Heng’s Singapore, replete with fish; there are competing political factions and questions of power and control; there are familial relationships and love interests in a world that is being dissolved and rebuilt. This is the realm of Heng’s second novel, The Great Reclamation, upon which she casts a remarkable story.

In 1940s Singapore, British rule is drying up—but so, too, are the fish in the novel’s small village. A curious boy named Ah Boon discovers that he has the unique power to see lively, wondrous islands that are invisible to other people. When he shares his discovery with his family and community, their fortunes change, and the fishing village is able to thrive. Ah Boon, though, is focused on Siok Mei, the spunky neighbor girl, and their lives remain entangled while growing up, pursuing education and confronting their changing political realities and global climate.

Layered beneath all of Ah Boon’s adventures and experiences are the rich landscape and the ways humans measure their lives in, around and because of it. From the magical islands’ plethora of fish to the proposal of land reclamation, the landscape acts and responds, speaks and listens, and Heng highlights these interactions in beautiful and surprising ways. Her prose is alive; each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.

Heng captures the individual and collective challenges of being human, evaluates pretense and power shifts, explores what a modern country might become after the disruption and displacement of World War II, and explores our concepts of family and home—and every bit of it is a delight to witness and revel in. The best novels teach us something new and ask us to engage in worlds beyond our own. For me, The Great Reclamation did just that. I don’t remember the last time I finished a nearly 500-page novel in one day, but I could not stop reading. It’s a remarkable journey.

The prose in Rachel Heng’s second novel is alive. Each character is rich with complexity and depth, each snapshot brimming with imagery.
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Jennifer Neal’s debut novel is a haunting coming-of-age story, a melodic love letter to the language of music and a fierce, dark, rage-filled upbraiding of patriarchal violence. 

Gabrielle has the ability to change the color of her skin, a quality inherited from her mother, Tallulah. As a child, Gabrielle learns how to shift from her natural brown into vivid reds and blues and golds, as well as how to hide her skin tones from the world when needed. Chillingly, Gabrielle and Tallulah most often make their skin white to appease the family patriarch, a violent, abusive man who demands everything in the house, including his wife and daughter, be whitewashed.

When Gabrielle’s controlling father insists that she take a year off after high school to improve her piano playing and bulk up her resume for college applications, she finds an unexpected source of freedom and solace in her piano teacher, a queer woman named Dominique. Dominique and her mother, Niyala, fill their colorful home with love, music and food—so unlike the cold and fearful house where Gabrielle grew up. As Gabrielle spends more time with them, she slowly begins to face—and heal—her deep old wounds.

Notes on Her Color unfolds almost glacially at first, in a series of meandering scenes—some banal and domestic, others startling in their harsh depictions of violence. A series of events toward the end of the novel heightens the book’s emotional impact, and though the pacing may feel a bit dizzying to some readers, it also captures the often tumultuous whims of adolescence.

Neal’s prose is assured and evocative, and the magic of shifting skin tones enables a fascinating commentary on race, power, invisibility and desire. But where this novel truly shines is in its nuanced exploration of relationships between women. There’s a softness in the way Neal writes about Gabrielle and Dominique, and a hard-edged tenderness to how Dominique and Niyala bicker and tease. Gabrielle and Tallulah’s thorny, muddled relationship is described with prickly honesty: They are haunted by many of the same demons, and yet they struggle to see each other clearly. With small but devastating details, Neal paints a vivid picture of their close bond and, just as gracefully, depicts the ways the world frays it nearly to breaking. 

Notes on Her Color is about familial violence and the complex legacies of generational trauma. It’s also about queer joy and the hard, slow work of liberation. Musicians and artists will likely find it especially compelling—the women in this novel use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should look out for this debut.

Musicians and artists will likely find Jennifer Neal’s novel especially compelling—the female characters use music as a form of resistance and power—but anyone craving a fresh, inventive take on the bildungsroman should read this debut.
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Selam Asmelash Gebre Egziabher emerges, enraged, from a troubled womb into a troubled place at a troubled time. It seems she is destined to have, as author Mihret Sibhat’s title suggests, The History of a Difficult Child.

Born in Ethiopia in the early 1990s, Selam enters a grim world of insecurities and grievances, from political to economic to fundamental. During the 17-year civil war that follows the overthrow of Haile Selassie, an ever-shifting succession of governmental overlords keep the country fearful and in distress. Selam’s father, Asmelash, and mother, Degitu, have faltered economically; the government has repossessed their flour mill, coffee-processing plant and much of their land, redistributing it in a misguided fit of socialism. Asmelash and Degitu are also struggling emotionally and physically, he with his alcoholism, she with her persistent—and incorrectly diagnosed—uterine condition.

When we first meet Selam, she is preliterate, but Sibhat gives us access to the child’s thought processes, including her belief that she has a leopard inside her. For all of her ferocity, though, Selam is insightful and quite often ruefully amusing, noting at one point that “I have learned from life and from my father that the fall of one tyranny is the rise of another.”

After her mother embraces Protestantism, isolating their family from both the Orthodox Christian villagers and the local Marxist revolutionaries, Selam tentatively follows along, only to discover that the religion fails to answer many of her questions. After her favorite brother, himself a missionary, is killed in a freak accident, she “[wishes] to disappear from life somehow. Or to locate God, arrest him, and liberate everyone from His madness.”  

And yet, she perseveres. Fortunes change, and change again, and while she remains to the end of the book a difficult child, Selam learns to embrace the world’s inconsistencies. She is a little broken but unbowed. Her outlook on life is that of an old soul in a young body, well adapted for the capriciousness of her circumstances: “I used to want to reduce the number of people I love in order to protect my heart from destruction. I don’t think the devastation of living will ever stop. I might as well increase my enjoyment of love.”

Sibhat’s vivid narrative is captivating, particularly for its emotional depth, even as some of the events she depicts are shocking. She has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career. 

Mihret Sibhat has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a brilliant career.

Caroline O’Donoghue, the bestselling author of the YA fantasy novel All Our Hidden Gifts, has published several books for adults in the U.K. but makes her American adult debut with The Rachel Incident, a dual-timeline narrative that’s mostly set during Rachel Murray’s last year of university in Cork, Ireland.

In 2009, Rachel is living at home with her parents and working part time in a bookshop when she meets James Devlin, who’s just been hired as a bookseller. Rachel and James charm each other, begin a sudden bantering friendship—she’s fairly sure James is gay; he insists he’s not—and soon she’s moved out of her suburban family home and into his ramshackle downtown house. 

When Rachel falls for her married English professor, Dr. Fred Byrne, both Rachel’s and James’ lives become entangled with Dr. Byrne and his wife, Deenie, who works in publishing. To Rachel, the older couple’s well-kept house and professional lives signify modern adulthood. 

This is only the beginning of Rachel’s tumultuous year, one of haphazard and sometimes terrible decisions, heartbreaking first love and frequent despair—and all as the Great Recession squeezes everyone she knows. Rachel and James work on his sitcom screenplay based on their life together, and they dream, plan and save in order to leave conservative Ireland for London and a more fabulous life. 

Counterpointing and narrating this chaotic year is the voice of an older Rachel, now in her early 30s, a journalist in London who’s pregnant with her first child. She’s still friends with James (mostly via texting), who’s now a comedy writer for a late-night TV talk show in New York City. The present-day Rachel has news for James that she’s not sure how to share.

In both timelines, but especially the earlier one, Rachel’s first-person voice and wonderfully off-kilter observations make her a character you want to settle in with. By turns comic and bittersweet, this is a tender tale of platonic and first love, as well as a sharp look at such issues as homosexuality and abortion in the more repressive Ireland of pre-repeal days. The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.

The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright and funny voice in a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve.
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Nicola Dinan’s debut novel is the best kind of queer love story: not a dramatic tragedy but an expansive exploration of intimacy, desire and queer family-making. Dinan refuses to adhere to the expected beats of mainstream narratives about straight relationships, but she also also brashly and bravely rejects the standards of moral perfection that queer and transgender characters in fiction are too often required to live up to. Instead, she honors what is uncomfortable and hard about trans life right alongside what is sacred.

Tom and Ming meet in their early 20s at a drag show put on by their university and immediately hit it off. Tom is a white Brit whose good-natured cheerfulness masks his insecurity. Ming is an aspiring playwright who has come to England from Malaysia; her mother died when she was a teenager, and she’s still looking for a place or a group of people that feel like home. Tom and Ming fall in love easily, but their relationship is thrown into turmoil when Ming decides to transition. The narrative switches between their two perspectives as they navigate their changing relationships to each other and to themselves. 

Ming finds freedom, relief and joy in finally being herself, but being a nonwhite trans woman in the U.K. also brings new challenges. Tom struggles to accept that while his love for Ming hasn’t changed, his desire for her has. They are both grieving imagined versions of themselves and their futures. This kind of heartbreak, which is as much a part of queer and trans life as anything else, is not something that queer fiction often makes space for. 

Bellies is fraught with all the messes of growing up and into identity. Dinan’s prose is fresh and immediate and full of tension. There’s drunken revelry, heart-pounding fights, tender moments between lovers, strained long-distance phone calls with family and awkward support group meetings. Every page of this novel feels alive and thrumming; even the introspective sections have a momentum that pulls the reader along. Ming, Tom and their group of friends have quirks and flaws that make them immediately recognizable. They are selfish and petty, confused and clueless, loving and impatient. Sometimes they love one another generously, but sometimes they fail to love one another at all.

This is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest book about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow process of building a home—in a new country, with another person and inside yourself. Bellies celebrates a hundred different kinds of transformation and, like the very best novels, has the power to transform its readers in unexpected ways.

Nicola Dinan’s debut novel is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest story about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow process of building a home—in a new country, with another person and inside yourself.
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It’s a strange and fraught time, that space between the end of high school and the rest of your life. You’re caught on the border between childhood and maturity, between parental protection and personal agency. In Small Worlds, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s follow-up to his award-winning debut novel, Open Water, musician Stephen is right on the cusp of adulthood, but he is also straddling two cultures: London, his home; and Ghana, from which his family emigrated.

At the novel’s outset, Stephen has feelings for longtime gal pal Del, but he can’t find the words to express his love. He dances around his emotions, quite literally. Whether in a spontaneous two-step with his brother, swaying in the pews at church or feeling the rhythm in Peckham dance halls blaring Rick James, J Dilla and D’Angelo, Stephen sees dancing as an escape, a safety net and salvation. 

His father doesn’t exactly share the sentiment and is concerned that his son is adrift. Pops encourages Stephen to drop the idea of pursuing a music degree and study business instead, which Stephen does, to little success. And when he drops out of college and returns home, a rift opens between father and prodigal son that seems irreparable. Harsh words are exchanged, and Stephen departs for a new phase of his life.

Over the next few years, Stephen takes tentative steps toward being his own man, explores his Ghanaian roots and discovers the joys of preparing and sharing food with others. He bonds with a friend who has suffered a beat-down at the hands of a racist gang and muses on what it means to be a Black immigrant in modern-day England. He tentatively expresses his love for Del and extends an olive branch to his father.

The book’s action, such that there is, unfolds slowly, and when we take our leave of Stephen at the story’s end, he’s still a work in progress. But even small worlds take time to build, and  Nelson leaves us with the impression that this one will be bountiful—with a dance floor at its center.

Whether swaying in the pews at church or feeling the rhythm in Peckham dance halls, Caleb Azumah Nelson’s young protagonist sees dancing as an escape, a safety net and salvation.
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Shastri Akella’s debut novel is a momentous queer coming-of-age story that follows a 16-year-old boy in 1990s India. The Sea Elephants documents a life on the run, as Shagun seeks to discover himself and be free from the duties and delineations of gender and caste. 

As the novel opens, Shagun is mourning the recent death of his twin sisters when his unaccepting father suddenly returns home, bringing impossible standards along with him. In an attempt to escape his father, Shagun applies to a distant boarding school. When a traveling theater troupe visits the school and performs one of the myths that Shagun and his sisters loved when they were children, he decides that the best way to liberate himself from society and his father’s expectations is to live a bohemian life on the road, leading his story down a winding and wondrous path.

The most moving, frustrating and alluring part of The Sea Elephants is Shagun himself. Because of the torture he faces at the hands of his father and the grief he feels at the loss of his sisters, Shagun tells his story in a voice that is simultaneously clear and deeply confused. He falls for a series of beautiful boys and thinks about how to best harm his father; at the same time, he is often insightful and funny. For instance, when his father takes photos of Shagun urinating and shows them to him, saying that he is doing it in an improper, unmanly way, Shagun wonders what the person who developed the photos must have thought when he saw the final prints and handed them to his father. After Shagun joins the theater troupe, his descriptions of those first days are touching as he discovers a new way of living. Shagun’s journey eventually leads him to Marc, an American who falls for him after seeing him perform, which takes the novel down a more mature avenue. The couple’s squabbles provide plenty of hurdles until they attain something closer to love and joy.

Akella uses myth as the framework for The Sea Elephants, which allows Shagun’s story to feel ancient and sacred. The title comes from the myth of the sea elephants, whose ancestors were taken by the gods for their beauty, which leads their grieving patriarch to drown human children in return. This provides one of the central tensions of the novel, as Shagun questions why humans have to pay for the actions of their gods. As Shagun embodies myths through his performance, he takes his fate and the gods’ forces into his own hands, liberating himself from societal, bodily and metaphysical restraints. 

Debut novelist Shastri Akella uses myth as the framework for The Sea Elephants, which allows the coming-of-age story to feel ancient and sacred.
STARRED REVIEW

Our top 10 books of August 2023

Our top 10 books for August 2023 include Colson Whitehead's riotous sequel to Harlem Shuffle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's latest horror novel and an engrossing look at race in Shakespeare’s works.
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Children's

Ghost Book

Remy Lai juxtaposes serious topics with charming humor in Ghost Book, a lushly illustrated folkloric contemporary fantasy that will inspire readers to learn more about

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Crook Manifesto book cover
Crime Fiction

Crook Manifesto

Crook Manifesto more than matches the finely hewn psychological tensions that haunted Colson Whitehead’s main character in Harlem Shuffle. The interplay between context and character

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Fiction

Tom Lake

Tom Lake is a gorgeously layered novel that spans decades yet still feels intimate, meditating on love, family and the choices we make.

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Coming of Age

Bellies

Nicola Dinan’s debut is a vulnerable, moving, riotously funny and deeply honest story about trans life, first love, art-making, friendship, grief and the hard, slow

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History

Valiant Women

Valiant Women is a vital and engrossing attempt to correct the record and rightfully celebrate the achievements of female veterans of World War II.

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Arts & Culture

The Great White Bard

Karim-Cooper’s candid discussion of more informed and nuanced approaches to interpreting Shakespeare can only help the Bard’s work endure.

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Nature

The Underworld

The Underworld is Susan Casey’s dazzling answer to the age-old, tantalizing question about the ocean’s abyss: “What’s down there?”

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Our top 10 books for August 2023 include Colson Whitehead's riotous sequel to Harlem Shuffle, Silvia Moreno-Garcia's latest horror novel and an engrossing look at race in Shakespeare’s works.
STARRED REVIEW
July 31, 2023

The 23 best debut novels of 2023 (so far)

Discover the debuts that have captured our attention with their sharp, fresh stories and bold truths.
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threeofus

The Three of Us

At fewer than 200 pages, The Three of Us makes for a quick and thought-provoking read that can elicit a cringe one minute and rueful ...
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Book jacket image for Dances by Nicole Cuffy

Dances

When Nicole Cuffy’s heroine dances, we want to dance with her. There’s no higher praise for a book like Dances.
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Mrs. Nash’s Ashes

This grumpy-sunshine romance is an absolute treat, and a superb debut from Sarah Adler.
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Book jacket image for The History of a Difficult Child by Mihret Sibhat

The History of a Difficult Child

Mihret Sibhat has achieved any fiction writer’s first goal—transporting the reader into another world—and has set the bar high for what promises to be a ...
Read more
Book jacket image for The Rachel Incident by Caroline O'Donoghue

The Rachel Incident

The Rachel Incident will likely draw comparisons to Sally Rooney’s work, but there’s more than a hint of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones here: a bright ...
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Discover the debuts that have captured our attention with their sharp, fresh stories and bold truths.
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“For my first two years at Idlewild, I had no friends. I didn’t mind it much. I appreciated that no one paid attention to me, that I could move through the school unnoticed.” This is how we meet Nell Rifkin, a public school transfer on scholarship to the titular posh Quaker high school in Manhattan. Idlewild is the kind of place where wealth runs deep and silent: “Flaunting your wealth went against Quaker ideals, plus Idlewild parents tended to be shabby-chic trust fund artists, so it was often hard to tell who was really rich.”

Nell eventually befriends Fay Vasquez-Rabinowitz, a “lifer” who has been at the school since kindergarten. On 9/11, they form a bond when Fay has nowhere to go while waiting for her artist parents to answer the phone. The two become F&N, an inseparable, sarcastic duo.

F&N are into school theater and making fun of their peers. Nell is also into Fay, and although Fay suspects as much, it’s an unspoken part of their friendship. “For a year and a half, my brain merged into hers until I had no idea where she ended and I began,” Nell says. F&N befriend Theo and Christopher, fellow students who seem to have a similar kind of friendship. A lot of what they do is typical teenage stuff: They party a little and ditch school to eat waffles at the diner near campus. But then the friendships turn dark. Using the nascent medium of internet journals, the four try to dazzle each other with their cleverness, with predictably awful results.

James Frankie Thomas’ first novel, Idlewild, is a fever dream of a book, full of longing, regret and hormones. It’s reminiscent of such coming-of-age classics as Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides yet also wholly original. Chapters shift between Nell’s and Fay’s perspectives, both as estranged adults looking back on their Idlewild years, and as F&N in 2002. Nell is especially compelling as a queer, extremely smart teenager who doesn’t try to hide anything about who she is.

Set against the backdrop of a post-9/11 nation on the verge of war, Idlewild is about the consequences of choices, big and small.

James Frankie Thomas’ first novel is a fever dream of a book, full of longing, regret and hormones.
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A girl from Zimbabwe finds new ways to read the stars in Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s second novel after House of Stone (2019). When Athandwa Rosa Siziba is born in 1994, her astronomer father leaves her and her mother, traveling to the United States to participate in the Program, a mysterious and highly selective astrophysics program for radical and non-Western approaches to science.

Athandwa’s father finds great success at the Program and even takes a ride on a billionaire’s rocket into space. He teaches Athandwa to appreciate the beauty of the cosmos as well and eventually tries to bring her to the U.S. These plans fall apart when he returns to Zimbabwe with the intention of convincing Athandwa’s mother to let her move but is killed in a car crash. Over the next few years, Athandwa works hard and eventually gets accepted into the Program, where she can finally fulfill her father’s dreams of researching Indigenous astronomies and perhaps uncover the truth behind his death.

Tshuma writes beautifully about the stars and the people who watch them, mixing poetic prose with tangibly emotional descriptions. In the first part of the book, when Athandwa visits the U.S. and stays with her father and his new family (his new wife is a Haitian immigrant), Athandwa’s childish jealousy provides a hilarious and touching counterpoint to the vexing complexities of immigration. While her father tries to convince her mother to let Athandwa become a U.S. citizen, Athandwa mocks her stepmother and pinches her stepbrother, unsure where her anger is coming from but nonetheless expressing it—showing the depths of her displacement and her desire to belong. This palpable emotional confusion continues in the later parts of the book when Athandwa returns to the U.S. to join the Program. While she feels welcomed at first, she finds that her father’s reputation looms large, and soon she is forced to carve her own niche in astronomy while finding a way to continue honoring her father’s legacy.

The layered nature of Digging Stars allows readers to uncover new ideas and emotions well into the book. Between Athandwa’s desire to follow her father, the rejection she faces from American society and the distressing backdrop of a war-torn Zimbabwe, this book re-creates an intricate web of immigrant life. Tshuma traces multiple stories of family, immigration and self-discovery into a thrilling and beautiful constellation.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma writes beautifully about the stars and the people who watch them in her second novel, Digging Stars.
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For Bryan Washington, cooking, eating together or even refusing a home-cooked meal has far-reaching emotional repercussions. In his new novel, Family Meal, the relationships among friends are defined by the food they prepare and strengthened by the meals they share. Food provides the ultimate opportunity for community and witness against a backdrop of personal hardship and urban gentrification.

Cam is back in his hometown of Houston after the traumatic death of his boyfriend, Kai, who worked as a translator and split his time between Los Angeles and Osaka, Japan. Unable to shake the violent circumstances of Kai’s death, Cam is haunted by Kai’s memory and his nights spiral into bouts of indulgent drug use and casual sex. He eventually ends up at the bakery where he once worked, which is owned by Mae. She and her late husband, Jin, took Cam in after the death of his parents, raising him alongside their son TJ. Though the boys were once close, they drifted apart as adults, and TJ struggles to navigate Cam’s limitless despair and self-destructive behavior (Washington provides a content note suggesting that readers for whom self-harm, addiction and disordered eating are sensitive issues should go at their own pace). Feeling stuck in a relationship with a married man, TJ tentatively begins a new relationship with another employee at the bakery and explores his own nascent wish for independence. Meanwhile, Mae is under pressure to sell the business, and her thoughts about expansion are dependent on TJ’s plans. Or are they?

Although facing the people you’ve loved and left behind is often painful, as Washington demonstrates in Family Meal, it can reveal the unconditional love that remains. Shifting between points of view, Washington shows us characters at their most vulnerable, using food culture to explore conflict, desire, pleasure and passion. The meals his characters enjoy together through it all—from congee to collards to croissants—remind us of the many ways that love, like food, sustains us.

Bryan Washington shows us characters at their most vulnerable, using food culture to explore conflict, desire, pleasure and passion.

Sam

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Allegra Goodman’s Sam stands out among realistic coming-of-age novels about contemporary American girlhood.

We meet Sam when she is 7 years old. She lives in an apartment on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her mother, Courtney, and half brother, Noah, a spirited 2-year-old with problems all his own. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is an itinerant juggler and magician who is often on the road. Noah’s father, Jack, is hostile to Sam. 

Courtney loves her children but is overwhelmed by the need to work multiple low-paying jobs to support them. She fervently wants Sam to get the education she herself was unable to obtain. 

During one of Mitchell’s intermittent appearances, he takes Sam to the local fair, where she summits a climbing wall in the rain and discovers her passion. She is a talented climber, but climbing is as much about failing and falling as reaching the top. This metaphor seems obvious, but in Goodman’s skillful telling, it feels real and fraught. We’re brought deeply into Sam’s sensibility, her need to win, her dislike of formal schooling and her desire to please her mother, who has worked so hard to give Sam a decent life. We viscerally feel Sam’s peril, both as a climber and as a young girl. We’re with her through loneliness, problematic boyfriends, self-doubt and loss of youthful confidence, and we connect with her desire to be herself and realize her own dreams.

The novel follows Sam until she enters junior college, and although there are many failures and falls along the way, this is by no means a gloomy story. Sam is a very appealing character, and so are the friends who sustain her. 

Sam’s struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is. We care deeply how Sam’s story turns out, thanks to Goodman’s brilliance and empathy.

Sam’s coming-of-age struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Allegra Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is.

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