STARRED REVIEW
March 05, 2019

The Altruists

By Andrew Ridker
Review by

The debut novel from 28-year old author Andrew Ridker sold in 18 auctions around the world, causing his publisher to label it an “international sensation.” Fortunately, the hype around The Altruists and Ridker, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum, is warranted.

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The debut novel from 28-year old author Andrew Ridker sold in 18 auctions around the world, causing his publisher to label it an “international sensation.” Fortunately, the hype around The Altruists and Ridker, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum, is warranted.

Like Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, the central storyline of Ridker’s often darkly funny, heartfelt tale concerns an untenured professor in late middle age, without any money and not much chance of earning any. The professor in question is Arthur Alter. He has dragged his wife, Francine, and two children—the introverted Ethan (who soon comes out as gay) and idealistic Maggie—from Boston to St. Louis with the hope of getting tenure at Danforth University. When it doesn’t happen, he becomes disgruntled, increasingly desperate and miserable.

We learn early in the novel that Francine, who is a family and couples’ therapist, will die from cancer. But as the novel skips back and forth in time, we get to see a family evolving, as well as young Francine and Arthur in love and filled with hope and ambition.

We also know that Arthur, 63 by the story’s end, cheated on his wife when she was gravely ill, with a German history professor half his age. In the fallout from that affair, Francine removes Arthur from her will and cuts him out of her secret nest egg. By halfway through the novel, the reader is unlikely to have mustered much sympathy for Arthur. Only when the novel backtracks to the younger and far more idealistic protagonist’s trip to Zimbabwe, where he hopes to provide solutions to sanitation problems, did this reader connect with him. When his project fails, Arthur is crushed, and his life’s trajectory is set.

Later in his life, when he is broke and barely working, Arthur hopes his children might be able to part with some of their inheritance so he can avoid foreclosure. However, the lesson Arthur and his children learn by the novel’s end is not financial in nature but moral. It proves to be priceless.

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The Altruists

The Altruists

By Andrew Ridker
Viking
ISBN 9780525522713

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