Lois Lowry is too fine a writer to write a bad book. But no writer is too great for stumbling, as she demonstrates in her long-awaited, young adult novel “Son,’’ the last in the “Giver” quartet.
“The Giver,’’ the first book in the series, won the 1994 Newbery Medal and became an instant classic. The book inhabits a dystopia and follows a 12-year-old named Jonas whose job is to be the memory for a community committed to peaceful, if passionless, forgetfulness. The book is notable for its remarkable characterizations and quick pacing. It is also famous for its ambiguous ending, which has haunted young readers for years.
“Gathering Blue’’ (2000) and “The Messenger’’ (2004) were the next two installments. Both share the same dystopian world as “The Giver,’’ take place within about eight years after the events of the series opener, and share some characters.
This newest book, “Son,’’ claims to be a sequel in a far more direct way. Yet to call it a true sequel is misleading. It is not primarily dystopian, nor does it revolve around the first book’s main characters, and it leaves more questions unanswered than resolved.
“Son’’ centers around Claire, birth mother of baby Gabriel, whom Jonas risked his life to try to save at the end of “The Giver.’’ When we first meet Claire, she is more or less happily a part of her dystopic society. However, her dictated role of birth mother lacks prestige. After a complicated birth, Claire is transferred to a fish hatchery, but she remains haunted by the memory of the son she bore, with the rest of the novel largely dedicated to her search to find him.
“Son’’ may be Lowry’s most heartbreakingly autobiographical novel, as Lowry lost a son in a US Air Force plane crash. Claire’s sense of loss and her frantic, loving, and determined search fuels the sense of hunger that permeates the book.
By a fluke — and a plot hole, one of several — Claire isn’t put back on the pills that will numb her like her friends and co-workers. Determined to find her son, she escapes by boat and ends up shipwrecked on a remote and primitive outpost. Like a fairy tale character, she must climb a virtual glass mountain and meet a deadly foe before she can hope to find Gabriel.
This first section of the book recalls “The Giver’’: quick, subtle, rhythmic, compelling.
The second portion — roughly 140 pages — is dedicated to her time in the isolated land, and her physical training which resembles a mix of “Rocky’’ and “The Karate Kid.’’ This middle section, however, drags, and the writing and imagery are filled with cliché.
“Claire stood silent, awed by the music, puzzled by the concept of love, and moved by both the solemnity and the celebration of the occasion.”
Jonas, when we meet him 15 years later, has become distressingly dull, married to a motherly woman who bakes pies. Readers looking for hints of the angry, anxious, driven 12-year-old hero will be disappointed. During his time as Leader “he had gently but firmly reminded the villagers that they had all been outsiders once. They had all come here for a new life. Eventually they had voted to remain what they had become: a sanctuary, a place of welcome.”
If all this sounds a bit preachy, it is. But much is redeemed when we pull out of these middle doldrums and into a galloping end, which plays to Lowry’s strength as a fantasy writer who can make the fantastical seem grippingly real.
“Son’’ is an imperfect book, hampered by its over-elaborations and pacing, but it nonetheless has moments of beauty, plot surprises, and a ringing conclusion. At one point the teenage Gabriel says, “This is slower going than I thought it would be.” I have to agree — but overall the journey is still worth the effort.