When Porter Briggs was a young tank platoon leader 1963, he had no idea that a brief romance would shape the rest of his life. In his memoir Three Flights to Zurich, the Arkansas native, now retired, recorded the long and winding road from Arkansas to Zurich and back, having lost and gained a son.

Briggs begins his narrative in the 1960s, as he’s about to launch into a new life in the army, stationed at Coleman Barracks outside Mannheim, Germany. While he’s initially excited to meet German girls, he soon makes friends with University of Heidelberg students, all from Norway and Sweden. The admiration he has for the university students leads him to have two distinct parts of his life: his role in the army, where he shines as a leader, and his social life among the students. But while his search for feminine companionship might have readers anticipating a great romance, Briggs’ narrative flashes back to his childhood when his mother’s descent into alcoholism broke something inside of him. One day, excited to share good news from high school, he returns home to find his mother in a drunken stupor. He’s heartbroken, but he stops himself from crying, reminding himself of his responsibility to take care of his siblings while his mother is incapacitated:

When I said the words, “I’ve got to stop crying,” it provoked a change deep inside me. It separated me from my emotions in my below-conscious awareness. From that moment, I was no longer able to feel my emotions or sense the feelings of others. I did not know anything had changed but my emotions had gone into a deep sleep. My girlfriend still provoked carnal desire but there were no longer any romantic feelings. I could feel carnal concupiscence but not the emotion of romantic love. I was damaged. Unable to live a normal emotional life. In the next 33 years, I cried twice. I lived my life entirely without alcohol.

It’s this young man, emotionally stunted but unaware of his own brokenness, who befriends a young woman from the University of Heidelberg. After they share a night together, it soon becomes apparent that she’s pregnant with his child. Unable to feel a deep response or to be moved by the news, he arranges for her to live comfortably during her pregnancy and eventually helps her pave the way for their child to be adopted. But while it makes little emotional impact at the time, the question of what happened to his son plagues him over the course of his many adventures. “The heart of this memoir is the author’s search for his son, a mission motivated by love and a need for redemption, expressed in exceedingly intelligent terms here,” Kirkus Reviews concludes.

Briggs describes his many and varied travels—as a nonprofit founder, a White House Fellow, a magazine publisher, a campaign manager, a Wall Street rainmaker, and more—in a way that invites readers along on his adventures. But even in the midst of his successes, his mind keeps returning to that child he left behind. When travels take him back to Zurich, he begins a search to find the child. Stymied, he abandons the search, but he keeps coming back to it. And his child is always present on his mind—the narrative brings readers back to that thought time and again. Eventually Briggs realizes that he needs help to navigate his own emotional landscape, and through a very positive therapy experience, he becomes able to connect with his feelings again. He falls in love with a woman who supports his quest to find his son, and together, they try again. Through perseverance, Briggs finally finds the man his son has become and begins the process of connecting with his lost family.

“I wrote the story now because I have found my son and [I’ve] sold my business, giving me the freedom and the time to write it,” Briggs explains. “I have been asked so many times to tell the entire story of my life and looking for my son and then finding him after 49 years.” Though he wrote the book initially for his family, as a student of literature, Briggs feels it might be appreciated by a wider audience. Given the number of books published each year, along with his own experience and success as a businessman, he feels confident that self-publishing and hiring his own publicists will get the book into the hands of the right readers. As he says, “That plan is based on my experience with dozens of literate readers who have read my memoir and say [it is], indeed, interesting and readable.”

Briggs spends time during the narrative discussing his own literary education, something he took up on his own after a short enrollment at the University of Heidelberg. Seeing how well-read the other students were, he became determined to catch up after his time in Europe was over. The lessons he learned as a reader came into play as he began to shape his own narrative. “When I began writing and wrote…hackneyed [prose], I would usually quickly see that what I put down was a dead phrase or sentence,” he explains. “That comes from having read so much fine literature. That doesn’t mean I have not written some clichés in my memoir. I have. But I expect [that] when I see them on second reading, I will recognize and correct them. After all, I spent two years reading Marcel Proust.”

The resulting autobiography is a well-shaped version of his life, told intelligently with philosophical interludes, but without ever losing sight of its heart. With so many extraordinary experiences—producing John Denver’s USSR concert tour, seeing his own businesses fail only for him to rise again in a new venture, even caring for the boxwoods at Lincoln Memorial, which won him an award as Volunteer of the Year—it might have been easy to lose the thread of his journey from an emotionless young man to a loving man of faith reunited with his adult son. But Briggs never loses track; he includes the most interesting and key parts of his life that support that story. “Some parts of my life are not interesting,” he confesses. “I left those out.”

Peppered with photographs and callout quotes, the piece reads almost like an ongoing series of magazine articles—a sensible format from a writer who was once the publisher of an award-nominated magazine. When his experiences call for a critique on social inequities—he has a lot to say about racial inequity and how he mourned Martin Luther King Jr.’s death—he delves into deeper thought in a way that illuminates his life, rather than drawing attention away from the narrative. Always, at the core, is the story of a man who must learn that he’s broken in order to heal. His journey through therapy and his growing faith as a member of the Anglican Church make him ready to complete his mission to meet his son, whom he has loved without knowing, even when he could not understand his own feelings.

Well acquainted with his own flaws, Briggs never represents himself as a hero in his own story, but rather a man who makes mistakes, who has lessons to learn, and who deeply strives for a lost connection. Through that success, he fills his narrative with hope for readers who have also experienced brokenness. While it may have taken him 49 years, he found his son, and now, while they are not a normal family, they are, indeed, a family. It’s a new beginning—and Briggs describes many of those in his life—but it’s also a fitting ending to a narrative about soul-searching, and about finding and giving love.

Alana Joli Abbott writes about pop culture, fantasy and science fiction, and children’s books, which she reviews with the help of her kids.