Revisiting his birthplace in France, a retired university professor reckons with his past—and, unexpectedly, the future in the form of a great-nephew.
Noah hasn’t seen Nice since his mother sent him to join his father in the U.S. when he was 4, during World War II. He plans to celebrate his 80th birthday there, and he certainly wasn’t planning to take along 11-year-old Michael, illegitimate son of Noah’s ne’er-do-well nephew, Victor. But Michael's mother is in jail on drug charges—probably taking the rap for Victor, who subsequently OD’d—and the grandmother who was taking care of the boy just died; there is literally no one else, says the desperate social worker who phones Noah as a last resort. With her characteristic storytelling brio, Donoghue (The Lotterys Plus One, 2017, etc.) sets up a fraught situation with multiple unresolved issues. Instead of a leisurely visit to Nice, possibly tracking down the locations of some enigmatic photographs his mother took during the war, Noah is stuck with a foulmouthed, sullen tween who rarely lifts his eyes from his battered phone. Granted, it’s predictable that this mismatched pair will ultimately come to grudging mutual respect and even affection, but Donoghue keeps sentimentality to a minimum and deftly maintains a suspenseful plot. Michael’s digital skills come in handy as Noah investigates the unpleasant possibility that his mother was a Nazi collaborator, and his (minimal) confidences reveal a history of poverty and loss that makes the boy’s thorny character understandable. Noah, still holding internal conversations with his beloved wife, Joan, nine years after her death, knows something about loss, and he struggles to be patient. Donoghue’s realistic portrait of Michael includes enough rudeness and defiance to make the pair’s progress toward détente bumpy and believable. The story of Noah’s mother turns out to be more complicated and even sadder than he had feared, leading to a beautiful meditation on how we preserve the past as we prepare for the future. Noah and Michael, humanly flawed and all the more likable for that, deserve their happy ending.
Not as ambitious or challenging as Donoghue in absolute top form (say, Room), but readable, well crafted, and absorbing.