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Everybody's Son

Review

Everybody's Son

When Anton Vesper was nine years old, his mother, Juanita, left him in their apartment in the Roosevelt projects alone and disappeared for seven days. With the windows painted shut and the door locked from the outside, Anton survives on the meager rations of food in the refrigerator and plays his Nintendo Game Boy until the batteries run out. Things aren’t so bad until the electricity shuts off in 95-degree weather; the situation becomes so unbearable that Anton throws a kitchen chair through the window and climbs out to freedom and fresh air. A police officer finds him a few minutes later and places him with Child Protective Services, and eventually in the home of the Colemans.

A new foster dad and the son of a U.S. senator, Judge David Coleman desperately wants to bring a child into their home for him and his wife, Delores, to nurture. He tells Delores that he just wants to “give back,” but the fact that they lost their own teenage son suddenly in a car accident lies just under the surface of his motivation. Even so, David takes a keen liking to his new charge, immediately picking up on the potential Anton has to live a different life altogether --- one that David has the means and connections to provide. But Anton stubbornly holds out hope that his mother will eventually return for him, a reality that David can’t allow. The decision to keep Anton, no matter what, sets into motion a series of underhanded dealings that eventually grant David his wish.

Told in four “books” that chronicle Anton’s life from 1991 to 2016, EVERYBODY’S SON follows the story of a young, adopted African American child as he grows, rises, falls and finds himself along the way.

"EVERYBODY’S SON is an impressive undertaking that addresses complex issues. Umrigar has crafted an unflinching portrait of the human condition with its flaws and triumphs, creating a safe space for us to find our own truth."

Thrity Umrigar has drafted the improbable: a book that is literary yet accessible. It takes no time at all to be enveloped in the writing and follow the story of Anton’s journey from start to finish. It’s very clear in the read that the author is a journalist --- her service to the facts is impeccable, although many times this is at the expense of character development. Umrigar had to cover 15 years in the space of one novel --- a daunting task, to be sure --- but the result is that the reader’s view into Anton’s life is heavily fragmented. While his character was so vivid on the beginning pages, I lost that clarity as he grew at various stages throughout the book.

Adding to this issue, I believe, is Umrigar’s use of the point-of-view (POV) characters. For the first several chapters, she depends heavily on David’s POV to tell the story --- a time when his choices take a turn for the dark. Later in life, when we view David from Anton’s POV, I almost don’t recognize him. And while this device certainly illustrates the truth that how a person is perceived is sometimes more important than who that person actually is, the reading experience felt disjointed. Additionally, I found myself wishing that Juanita’s POV had been included at the beginning to balance the story with emotional depth on the other side of the fence, so to speak. Even Delores’ POV would have provided some welcome color on a complex situation. Some readers will simply be able to chalk this up as a realistic approach to storytelling, but I was disappointed to not connect with the characters on a deeper level; it lessened the book’s impact for me.

That said, EVERYBODY’S SON tackles some incredibly ambitious themes that are seamlessly and effortlessly woven in. I found myself grateful to be confronted with issues in this book that I might not experience in my real life. Thinking through a topic from another angle and perspective challenges my biases, and wrestling through them makes me a better human being.

As Anton becomes comfortable in his adopted life, in college he meets and begins to date Carine, a fiery and idealistic African American woman whose passion to combat injustices and meet hot-button issues head on forces him to address the lens through which he sees the world. Just by being herself, Carine upsets the balance of his equilibrium and that of his family’s. But it’s in their relationship that Anton begins to confront a reality he’s tried to forget: that he will always have a foot in two worlds.

Anton’s sometimes overt and sometimes subtle search to land and feel comfortable in an identity is an expected through line in the book. However, as I turned the last page, I was struck with a less expected realization: Umrigar provided a profound commentary on human resilience (or lack thereof) in the faces and choices of every character. In fact, this story ultimately shines a brighter light on Juanita’s courage to pick herself up and move forward with her life after losing her son than all of Anton’s shiny successes.

EVERYBODY’S SON is an impressive undertaking that addresses complex issues. Umrigar has crafted an unflinching portrait of the human condition with its flaws and triumphs, creating a safe space for us to find our own truth.

Reviewed by Amy Haddock on June 9, 2017

Everybody's Son
by Thrity Umrigar

  • Publication Date: June 6, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062442244
  • ISBN-13: 9780062442246