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SAM by Allegra Goodman


by Allegra Goodman

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 2023
ISBN: 978-0-593-44781-9
Publisher: Dial Press

A child's-eye view of growing up with a single mom, a troubled dad, and very slim resources.

"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." Goodman's seventh work of fiction follows her protagonist from ages 7 to 19, using very close third-person narration to limit the story to what is seen and understood by Sam herself. So, for example, what we know about her father's addiction issues or her mother's relationship with a violent but wealthy boyfriend is circumscribed in a way that soon begins to feel frustrating. Also, the tone of the narration seems to age very slowly, with extremely simple sentences and observations persisting as Sam starts high school and begins to get involved with boys. "Sam’s mom is a little different. She says, 'Let’s be real here.' She takes Sam to Planned Parenthood to get a prescription for the pill. This is because Sam was a surprise, and Courtney never finished her degree." This almost sounds like a picture book about birth control. Sam's main talent and interest is rock climbing, which she first encounters at a fair with her father, and from the start her will to succeed in the sport derives in large part from a craving for his difficult-to-capture attention. When she's in ninth grade, this need will be transferred to a college-age male coach, with problematic results. The sexual aspects and emotional dangers of that relationship are skimmed over with lyrical narration that feels almost coy at this point: "It is strange but magic in his apartment. It is wrong but deli­cious, like all the things not good for you....They are so secret; they are almost secret from themselves, almost dreaming when they lie down together….They steal time—not just hours, but the years between seventeen and twenty-two. They hide those years under their coats, and when they are together they leave those years on the floor with their boots, and socks, and clothes." By glossing over the fact that this is statutory rape and by letting its psychological implications and outcomes go unexplored, Goodman limits the reach of the novel.

There isn't enough texture in its treatment of the many serious issues faced by its heroine to satisfy readers.