There is something profound about witnessing children grow up and become the people they are meant to be. Although this universal theme is abundant in literature (and in terrific films like Boyhood), what distinguishes the novel Sam by Allegra Goodman is this accomplished author’s ability to describe life’s everyday triumphs, inner struggles, and heartbreak with remarkable clarity.
Sam is about an ordinary girl whose days unfold in an ordinary Massachusetts town. From this basic premise, Goodman crafts a tender, meticulously-detailed character study that charts Sam’s path from a fearless seven-year-old to a sometimes tentative, sometimes bold young adult, at turns scared and defiant, struggling to make sense of, and perhaps rise above, her circumstances.
The individuals in Sam’s orbit – her protective, financially strapped mother; her troubled half-brother; a handful of inconsistent friends; and her charming but utterly unreliable father – are richly imagined, each with a complex back story. These characters provide greater depth to an absorbing portrayal of a girl on the precipice of womanhood. As Sam wrestles with a constellation of emotions like shame, love, and joy, I found myself wholly invested in her life from her first car, her first boyfriend, her taking ownership of her education to the fortitude with which she goes after what she wants, even if it terrifies her.
Sam’s passion is climbing, which starts with scaling fences and trees and evolves to a competitive sport to which she gives her all (most of the time) and often prevails. In the training gym, Sam feels invincible, but the place also brings fresh dilemmas and desires:
“[Sam’s] arms are straining. Her hands are claws. She can’t hold on a second more, but she does hold as she berates herself. Stupid. Idiot. Hanging from the ledge, she hates her weight, but she starts pulling herself up, her body ripping. It hurts so much she can’t hear anything except her dad whistling. Then she can’t hear anything at all…. She is fighting the wall with all her strength and all her pain….It’s life and death. It’s nothing she has done before. When she heaves herself over the top, she is a castaway collapsing on dry land. Battered, broken, saved.”
Through Goodman’s vivid, present-tense prose, we’re right there with Sam as she navigates home, school, work, relationships, climbing, and upheaval. We see her ride the bus, wander through her working-class neighborhood, argue with her mom, make herself small, ace a test. We watch her fall hard, find her footing, then risk everything.
Sam is hurt, unmoored, searching. She’s also beautiful and strong. I could absolutely relate to her isolation when she sits alone in the cafeteria (I’m not crying, you’re crying) and her crushing disappointment in her dad after he lets her down – again. Most of all, I wanted Sam to find her place and be okay, whatever that might look like (no spoilers here). I’ve read the book twice so far, and each time something new touches me. This one’s a keeper.