Who has the right to judge what is the best way for a person to grow up? If you are biracial, is it better to be with the mother who loves you but is a struggling crack addict, or would it be more beneficial to live with a wealthy white family who can ensure you get into Harvard? Does privilege make you better? Does being white? Those are the uncomfortable moral questions that propel Thrity Umrigar’s extraordinary new novel, “Everybody’s Son,’’ and there are no easy answers.
Umrigar jump-starts her novel with a prologue that is as incendiary as the heat wave that suffocates the Roosevelt Housing Projects in 1991. Anton, a nine-year-old biracial boy (his father was a white doctor who quickly left the scene), is left locked alone in the apartment for days without a fan or air conditioning, while his addict mom, Juanita, is held prisoner at a crack house.
He finally rescues himself by breaking a window and jumping out into the street, covered in blood. His mom is found, charged with child abandonment, and sent to prison, despite her pleas that she was stopped from leaving. Anton is placed into foster care, and when it doesn’t work out with his foster family, kind-hearted, Judge David Coleman, the powerful son of a senator, and his wife Delores Coleman decide to take him in.
But the Colemans are walking wounded, still grieving the loss of their own son, who died in a car crash, en route to the prom. David, more than Delores, feels that it isn’t just Anton who is being given a fresh start but also himself, having gained the opportunity to father another boy, to bring out the best in him, to love and be loved. Both of them, David believes, can be healed. But that, he knows, takes time, which gives rise to a haunting secret decision with terrible repercussions.
The Colemans give Anton a great education, and every advantage money can buy. He loves his new family more than anything, especially David, but he can’t stop desperately yearning for his mother, until his emotion twists into anger when she doesn’t return for him.
But that’s not the only thing he struggles with. He’s the sole black boy growing up in a white enclave, and it’s almost impossible, at first, for him to fit in. But when he gets to college, he meets Carine, a gorgeous black woman who becomes the love of his life. She continually confronts him about his privilege, labeling him either “the blackest white man I’ve ever met or the whitest black man,” and making him question his sense of his own identity and the roles of race and class in his life.
The writing is clear, nuanced, and gorgeous and never even a word is preachy. But where Umrigar really shines is both at the opening of the book and in its brilliant final pages. It’s impossible not to ache for the young, traumatized Anton, desperate to get back to his beloved mom, even as he grapples with becoming a member of an advantaged white community. The final pages show us Anton as an adult after revelations have just rattled everything he thought he knew about himself and his life, fracturing his notions about what it means to be someone’s son, to belong to others.
“Everybody’s Son’’ is a tragedy in a lot of ways. It eloquently and heartbreakingly homes in on America’s problem with race, entitlement, and class, and uncovers all the compromises we get to make — but only if we are lucky enough to be born in the right neighborhood.
By Thrity Umrigar
Harper, 352 pp., $26.99
Caroline Leavitt’s novel “Cruel Beautiful World’’ will be out in paperback this August.