Allegra Goodman’s coming-of-age tale is small, but not simple: NPR

Sam, by Allegra Goodman

The past two years have taught us all to be careful about expectations for the new year, but any year that begins with the publication of a new novel by Allegra Goodman promises—just promises—to start off right. During her more than 30-year career, Goodman has distinguished herself as a literary cartographer, a meticulous cartographer of enclosed worlds.

For example, her 2006 novel, gut instincttransporting readers deep into the politics and personal rivalries of an elite cancer research laboratory; Caterscale Fallswhich came out in 1998 and won a National Book Award, it is set in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish summer community that gave the novel its title.

In contrast, the subject of her latest novel – a coming-of-age story called Poisonous – It may seem very familiar at first. Goodman herself says in an introductory letter to her readers that she fears the novel “seems small and simple”. Yes it is. But, this may be as ordinary as the world is Poisonous depicted, it is also severely constrained by class and culture. In its own way, the working-class world of Gloucester, Massachusetts is just as hard to break out of as some of the other worlds Goodman has painted.

The novel follows a working-class white girl named Sam who ranges in age from approximately 7 to 19. Her family consists of Courtney, her loving, chronically exhausted young mother, and her younger half-brother, Noah, who has behavioral problems. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is a kind magician/musician struggling with addiction who appears and disappears sporadically throughout her childhood.

During one early stint when he was still in town, Mitchell took Sam to a rock climbing gym. Dragging herself against a wall of fabricated rocks and crevices and trying to fight her way to the top becomes Sam’s passion. It’s also the narrative’s implicit metaphor for how difficult it is for Sam to transition herself to a safe place above her mother’s grinding life of multiple low-paying jobs.

Goodman tells this story in the third person through Sam’s point of view, which means the first chapters sweep us through the events with the raw enthusiasm and rudimentary vocabulary of a 7-year-old. The style matures as Sam does and her personality changes, the disillusionment becoming ever more crippling and the intrinsic sense of unworthiness sparked by Mitchell’s abandonment.

By the time Sam gets into her big public high school, where she feels like a “molecule,” she’s shut down, even temporarily giving up climbing. Sam’s mom, Courtney, keeps urging her to make plans: She’s naturally good at math, so why not aim for a community college where she might get an accounting degree? But Sam ignores these pep talks. She subconsciously resigns herself to the fact that her after-school jobs and summer jobs at the coffee shop, dollar store, and pizza place will freeze into her adult life.

Sam is a rare kind of literary novel: a novel about a process. Here is the process of climbing and falling. She gave in and, in Sam’s case, finally stirred herself up to risk wanting more. A joy this book examines how mood swings occur over time, in real-time. But this slow pace of the novel also makes it difficult to quote. Perhaps this conversation snippet will give you a sense of its cadence. In this scene, Sam unexpectedly passes her driving test, so she and her mom, Courtney, and brother, Noah, celebrate by spreading a sheet on the couch, eating buttered popcorn, and watching the Bruins on TV.

“Kids, this is what I want you to remember,” Courtney says. “You never give up and you will get somewhere.”

Nobody listens, because the score is even.

“You must have goals like…”

“College,” Sam and Noah echoed their eyes on the TV. ….

They are happy when the phone starts ringing, and Courtney takes it in the bedroom.

At first, the atmosphere is calm. Sam then hears her mother’s half-screaming pleading. …

By the time Courtney gets back, the game is over. She sank down on the couch and told them her grandmother had fallen. … Courtney has to go out tomorrow and stay a few days to help her.

Fatigue, a sense of inevitability palpable. Goodman doesn’t take lightly the facts that can keep people stuck where they are; But it also celebrates the mysterious drive that can sometimes, as in the case of Sam, drive someone to resist the pull of gravity and find a foothold outside the known world.

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