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'Sam,' the latest novel from Allegra Goodman, is small, but not simple

Penguin Random House

The last couple of years have taught us all to be cautious about our New Year's expectations, but any year that begins with the publication of a new novel by Allegra Goodman promises — just promises — to be starting off right. In her over 30-year career, Goodman has distinguished herself as a crack literary cartographer, a scrupulous mapper of closed worlds.

For instance, her 2006 novel, Intuition, transported readers deep into the politics and personal rivalries of an elite cancer research lab; Kaaterskill Falls, which came out in 1998 and was a finalist for the National Book Award, was set in the Orthodox Jewish summer community that gave the novel its title.

In contrast, the subject of her latest novel — a coming-of-age story called Sam — may at first seem overly familiar. Goodman herself says in an introductory letter to her readers that she feared this "novel might seem small and simple." It does. But, mundane as the world may be that Sam depicts, it's also tightly circumscribed by class and culture. In its own way, the working-class world of Gloucester, Mass., is just as tough to exit as some of the other worlds that Goodman has charted.

The novel follows a white working-class girl named Sam from the ages of 7 to about 19. Her household consists of her loving, chronically-exhausted young single mother, Courtney, and her younger half-brother, Noah, who has behavioral issues. Sam's dad, Mitchell, is a sweet magician/musician who struggles with addiction and who erratically appears and disappears throughout much of her girlhood.

During one of the early periods when he's still in town, Mitchell takes Sam to a rock climbing gym. Hurling herself against a wall of fabricated boulders and cracks and trying to scrabble her way to the top becomes Sam's passion. It's also the novel's implicit metaphor for how hard it will be for Sam to haul herself up to a secure perch above her mom's grinding life of multiple low-wage jobs.

Goodman tells this story in third-person through Sam's point-of-view, which means the earliest chapters sweep us through events with a 7-year-old's bouncy eagerness and elementary vocabulary. That style matures as Sam does and her personality changes, becoming more reined in by disappointment and a core sense of unworthiness sparked by Mitchell's abandonment.

By the time Sam enters 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 doesn't she aim for community college where she might earn a degree in accounting? But Sam shrugs off these pep talks. She subconsciously resigns herself to the fact that her after-school and summer jobs at the coffee shop and the dollar store and the pizza place will congeal into her adult life.

Sam is a rare kind of literary novel: a novel about a process. Here it's the process of climbing and falling; giving up and, in Sam's case, ultimately rousing herself to risk wanting more. The pleasure of this book is experiencing how the shifts in mood take place over time, realistically. But that slow pacing of the novel also makes it difficult to quote. Maybe this snippet of conversation will give you a sense of its rhythms. In this scene, Sam has unexpectedly passed her driving test and, so, she and her mom, Courtney, and brother, Noah, are celebrating by spreading a sheet on the couch and eating buttered popcorn and watching the Bruins on TV.

"Kids, here's what I want you to remember," Courtney says. "you don't give up and you will get somewhere."

Nobody is listening, because the score is tied.

"You've gotta have goals like ... "

"College," Sam and Noah intone, eyes on the TV. ....

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

At first, it's quiet. Then Sam can hear her mom half pleading, half shouting. ...

By the time Courtney returns, the game is over. She sinks down on the couch and tells them Grandma had a fall. ... Courtney has to drive out tomorrow and stay for a few days to help her.

The weariness, the sense of inevitability is palpable. Goodman doesn't disparage the realities that can keep people stuck in place; but she also celebrates the mysterious impulse that can sometimes, as in Sam's case, prompt someone to resist the pull of gravity and find her own footholds beyond the known world.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan
Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.