Allegra Goodman is the author of many acclaimed short stories and a number of inviting, well-written, and interesting novels. “Kaaterskill Falls” was a National Book Award finalist, several of her novels have been New York Times bestsellers. Her sixth novel and seventh work of fiction, “Sam,” is a bit of an oddity.
“There is a girl, and her name is Sam,” the novel opens, and that straightforward, unadorned sentence sets the tone for the quiet, unshowy, dignified novel that follows. “Sam” tells the story of a girl’s life from age 7 to 19, via what is designed to be a close third person present tense voice. The nature of that voice isn’t immediately clear — some moments seem colored by an adult perspective while others have the innocent naïveté of a child. The effect is not so much ambiguous as uneven; the wobbliness disrupts the smooth flow of the reading experience. As the novel proceeds, Goodman’s control of the voice strengthens (although a few errors do crop up), but the straightforwardness-verging-on-flatness of the prose remains.
In the prefatory letter to her reader, Goodman tells us that the book was inspired by her wildly energetic daughter, Miranda, to whom the novel is dedicated. Miranda was very unlike her three bookish brothers; she hated quiet and “literally climbed the walls, wedging herself up doorframes.” Goodman “wanted to write about what happens to that eagerness ... what happened to the girl who wants to climb?” From the novel’s opening pages, her Sam is a fearless and adept climber, wedging herself up doorframes like Miranda, rejecting books and slogging through her formal education, reveling in intrepid physical activity.
Sam’s mother, Courtney, works at a hair salon; her father, Mitchell, “is sort of around, sort of not”; her 2-year-old brother, Noah, from Courtney’s relationship with an abusive ex, Jack, is rebellious and messy. There isn’t a lot of money or security for either parent. Courtney, Sam, and Noah live precariously in a small, unfinished house loaned to them by Jack’s parents, who bought it as an investment property. Jack himself is in and out of the house and their lives, sparring with Sam, fighting — sometimes violently — with Courtney. Mitchell works as a musician and a magician, has a cranky and creaky car, and smokes too much. Goodman does a marvelous job of depicting this world of struggle and sacrifice, exhaustion and addiction, with neither condescension nor exaggeration.
Mitchell, who counts an accordion and a unicycle among his many magical accouterments, is full of fun, and Sam is a Daddy’s girl. Where “Courtney says no to everything,” Mitchell “never says no”; instead he encourages Sam’s dreams and cultivates her sense of whimsy and adventure. On an outing to a fair, he allows her to scamper up a formidable climbing tower, which she does with relative ease. Afterward, in the wake of people clapping as she “came gliding down,” Sam “feels grateful, and powerful, and famous,” and a dream is born.
Mitchell begins to coach his daughter in both what he calls the “mindset” (“Humility . . . Perseverance . . . Respect!”) and the act of climbing. It soon becomes clear, however, that he struggles with addictions and cannot be the competent and reliable father he so longs to be for his beloved daughter. As Mitchell flits in and out of her life, for Sam, “sometimes it’s easier when he’s far away,” and she becomes “afraid to trust him, and a little bit afraid to see him.”
As she grows into adolescence, Sam builds a friendship with Halle, a girl who also climbs, and whose well-off, stable parents chauffeur them to meets; emotionally detaches from her endearing but unreliable father; develops a crush on and then a sexual and romantic relationship with her climbing coach (the disturbing aspect of which isn’t sufficiently explored). As her high school graduation approaches, Sam is befriended outside of school by a bunch of kind, nature-loving young adults who smoke dope and climb when they aren’t working as mechanics or movers or gardeners; struggles with her demanding mother, who insists she plan her future as an accountant pragmatically; and worries about her increasingly troubled little brother.
To declare that a novel about a child or teenager should be sold, marketed, and classified as YA (Young Adult) is a judgment fraught with the peril of mistaking the range of its appeal. “Great Expectations,” “Jane Eyre” (which Sam’s friend Halle reads here), Claire Keegan’s “Foster,” and L.P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between” are all classic adult novels written from the perspective of children. But “Sam” really does feel like YA masquerading as adult fiction. It lacks the mature reflection, dramatic irony, or eloquence that make the story of a child a novel for grown-ups. And if considered as YA, “Sam” reads a bit like an S.E. Hinton novel — “The Outsiders,” “Tex,” or “That Was Then, This Is Now” — but without those novels’ piercing emotional force, poetic resonance, or almost unbearable poignancy. I never felt close to Sam or moved deeply by her predicament and evolution even as I admired Goodman’s empathy, wisdom, and commitment to telling the story of one ostensibly simple but ultimately meaningful life.
SAM: A NOVEL
By Allegra Goodman
The Dial Press, 336 pp., $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”