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From Allegra Goodman, the author of such books as THE CHALK ARTIST and THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR, comes SAM. This “Read with Jenna” pick is a heart-wrenching, searing, coming-of-age novel told in a vivid, immediate and memorable voice.

“There is a girl, and her name is Sam. She has a mother named Courtney and a dad who is sort of around, sort of not.” So begins the story of seven-year-old Sam, whose life with her mother, Courtney, and her mother’s new baby, Noah, is punctuated by regular, fun-filled visits from her well-meaning but feckless father, Mitchell. Sam’s life is more or less typical for her age: she religiously tracks the location of her favorite bouncy ball, learns -ight words (night, fight, bright, light) at school, and cuts imaginative figures out of construction paper.

"...a heart-wrenching, searing, coming-of-age novel told in a vivid, immediate and memorable voice.... I have no doubt that readers at the precipices of their own major comings-of-age will find much to relate to in SAM."

But around the edges, Sam’s understanding of the world dims as she struggles to identify the relationships and situations of the people around her. Her mother is exhausted but overworked, and she’s always complaining about money being tight (but how, Sam wonders, when she has a Job?). Noah idolizes her, though she cannot stand his mean-spirited father, Jack, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Courtney is volatile but is the only thing keeping a roof over their heads. Her father is a true artist --- he can perform magic, write poetry and invent fantastic games --- but his presence in her life is spontaneous, almost manic. And when he disappears, he does it a little too well.

What makes childhood Sam’s narration and understanding of her life so vivid is not her preternatural wisdom (she’s a more or less average child), but the way that Goodman relates her world --- and the dubious figures who populate it --- using the vocabulary and definitions that only a seven-year-old would have. For Sam, life is simple: “You have to study, because if you don’t do your work in school, you’ll live in other people’s houses. You’ll have to borrow a leaf blower…. You will be twenty-six and you’ll work all day but then you can’t go anywhere.”

Pessimistic? Maybe. Realistic? Absolutely. But what makes Sam’s observations so keen and immediate is her all-knowing record of the rules of the world, the simplicity of love, and the belief that things will be good one way or another. When Mitchell introduces her to rock climbing and they discover she has a natural talent, it seems she has finally found an avenue for her childhood exuberance, a way to channel the confusion she feels as a child in an adult world. But, of course, her father disappears again (clearly, the reader will be able to discern, as a result of addiction).

As Sam’s perception of the world deepens and darkens, so too does her outlook. Almost imperceptibly, Goodman elevates Sam’s vocabulary, as well as her comebacks and ambitions. The childhood love of rock climbing once fostered by her father becomes something completely her own. She also makes a best friend, Halle, who comes from a better, two-parented side of town, exposing her even further to the inequities of the world. But Sam is not her beleaguered mother or her aimless father. As she starts to transform rock climbing --- the pain, the concentration, the high --- into a way to ignore the misfortunes and unfairness plaguing her, she finds a new ambition: not only will she be good, not only will she be better than her peers, she will be famous.

Once again, life comes at Sam fast. The woes of teenagerdom and youthful angst hit her hard, particularly as she begins to grasp the depth of her father’s addiction, experiences firsthand the lecherous eyes of men, and watches as her moods range from depressed to rageful to something unnameable that prevents her from befriending others or following the path her mother wants for her. As Sam nears graduation, her father’s addiction reaches a climax, her mother’s pressure for her to attend college becomes smothering, and her romance falls apart. All that is left is climbing. But does she even want to climb if the pain is too great to ignore?

SAM is a mixed bag of scope and ambition. What Goodman does extremely well so early in the novel, immersing us in the brain and thoughts of a child (think ROOM), becomes stilted and stagnant as the story progresses. Goodman is a brilliant writer, and she infuses all of Sam’s relatable and familiar dramas --- angst, depression, ambition --- with weight and clarity. At times, though, she is too focused on Sam’s voice and not on her identity. As much as I was moved by Sam and her experiences with addiction, sexual abuse and education, I never felt like I knew her. It was often as if Goodman’s writing, which is so empathetic and wise, outshone her protagonist.

That Allegra Goodman is a singular talent is indisputable, and I have no doubt that readers at the precipices of their own major comings-of-age will find much to relate to in SAM. However, I wish that she had pushed her character just a bit further and maintained the same level of gorgeous attention to mind as she did in the opening chapters as Sam aged.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on January 6, 2023

by Allegra Goodman

  • Publication Date: November 14, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0593447832
  • ISBN-13: 9780593447833