A hilarious and deeply touching debut novel about a son, the mother who left him as a child, and how his search to uncover the secrets of her life leads him to reclaim his own.
Meet Samuel Andresen-Anderson: stalled writer, bored teacher at a local college, obsessive player of an online video game. He hasn’t seen his mother, Faye, since she walked out when he was a child. But then one day there she is, all over the news, throwing rocks at a presidential candidate. The media paints Faye as a militant radical with a sordid past, but as far as Samuel knows, his mother never left her small Iowa town. Which version of his mother is the true one? Determined to solve the puzzle—and finally have something to deliver to his publisher—Samuel decides to capitalize on his mother’s new fame by writing a tell-all biography, a book that will savage her intimately, publicly. But first, he has to locate her; and second, to talk to her without bursting into tears.
This is an interesting book for me to review mainly because I tend to have a major interest in mystery/thrillers as well as character driven fiction and while this definitely doesn’t fall into the mystery genre, I wouldn’t call it character driven either. For me, I need to connect with at least one major character (either good or bad) in order for me to invest in and enjoy character driven novels and that just didn’t happen for me in this novel.
In the beginning, we meet Samuel who’s a professor at a local college, failed novelist, and all around unhappy single guy who spends an insane amount of time playing the online video game Elfquest. His “friends” are the other players of the online virtual game. Needless to say, he lives a pretty boring life. We learn fairly quickly that Samuel isn’t the most likable guy when he tells one of his students that she’s “just not that smart.”
Samuel soon gets a visit from his publisher , Periwinkle, who threatens suing him for the advance they’ve already paid him for a book he never wrote. However, Periwinkle offers a way out of this little legal snafu if Samuel will agree to write a tell -all book about his famous mother…the radicalist who ‘attacked ‘ (i.e. threw gravel at) Governor Packer, a Presidential nominee. Samuel knows nothing of this scandal involving his mother because he hasn’t seen or heard from her since she walked out on him and his father when he was eleven and never looked back. As we come to find out , Samuel has many issues surrounding this abandonment.
The remainder of the book is detail heavy on things like academics, politics, the inherent dangers of too much video game playing, irrelevant capitalism, riots of the late 1960’s, first loves, and overcoming traumatic childhoods. If that seems like a lot to put in one book, it is, and that’s where reviewing it gets tricky.
This book is my book club’s pick for October which we picked based on the fact that it was billed as one of the best books of the fall as well as ‘hilarious and deeply moving.’ I have to say that I think this is a case of misleading promotion and marketing, although many, including a couple of my good reading friends, will disagree with me. Let me start off by saying that Nathan Hill can write some pretty amazing passages. When you first pick up this sprawling novel, it’s not long before you wonder how this could possibly be his debut novel with the snappy, engaging dialogue and use of some pretty creative language. However, from the beginning, I had a hard time connecting with Samuel although I did find him witty and observant at times. One of the interesting things that changed for me from the beginning to the end was my feelings for Faye, his mother. I started the book assuming I would dislike her character because she abandoned her little boy who very clearly needed her. Pretty soon into her backstory ,though ,I realized I actually liked her and felt conflicted in my feelings of her because of what happened in her life to lead her to leave her husband and son and never look back. The dynamic between Faye and Samuel and their struggle to reconnect after Samuel finds her again is what I most wanted to read about, however, there was ALOT of other tangents clouding that part up.
The book jumped between eras, people and topics so much that I found myself skimming but still getting the general idea of what was happening. Unfortunately though, when I start skimming I feel a book has lost me. It’s during some of these jumps into Samuel’s past, of the times with his friend Bishop, that I feel the story ,in my opinion, went to very unnecessary places. When Samuel, as an adult, revisits some of these memories of his friend Bishop when he receives a letter from him, we find out in great, unnecesary detail what happened to Bishop when they were eleven. I think for some people these passages may be very hard to read about and here is where my issue with the promotion and marketing comes in. This book is billed as hilarious and those parts…what happened to Bishop…are in no way shape or form part of anything that’s hilarious. It still could’ve been marketed as ‘deeply moving’ and that would’ve been ok but hilarious, not so much. Again, these are my opinions as I have friends who did think this book was really funny.
In the end, I really wanted to focus on the relationship struggles between Faye and Samuel and not on all the politics and video game playing. I think these tangents took away from the core story of whether a son whose mother abandoned him as a child can forgive and reconnect with her, and what drove her to do that in the first place. That, I was interested in.