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.