Book Review | A Girl Who’s Born to Climb

SAM
By Allegra Goodman
Dial Press. 336 pp. $28.00

Chosen as the first “Read With Jenna” book of 2023!

Ten years ago, in a Moment symposium on Jewish fiction, Allegra Goodman tipped her hand. “I think that Jewish authors are free to write any kind of fiction they like,” she said. “Artists should feel free to work with the material that inspires them. I’ve been inspired by the American Jewish community in all its diversity. I’ve also been inspired by rare-book dealers, young entrepreneurs, scientists working in laboratories, environmental activists.”

In an interview with The Journal of Ethnic American Literature, Goodman drove home the point: “Ultimately writers need to expand and extend their subject matter. If we didn’t we would only write about ourselves. This is why I do not limit myself to writing about Jewish life…I am interested in family, ritual, intergenerational conflict and the moral dilemma of people trying to survive in the modern world.”

Welcome to SAM, Goodman’s seventh novel, where the first reference to anything Jewish comes on page 112. That’s when Sam, an ordinary Massachusetts girl whose coming of age we follow from age 7 to 19, goes to the house of her Jewish friend, Halle, to light Hanukkah candles. The visit prompts Sam’s regularly disappearing father, Mitchell, to mention for the first time that he’s Jewish, too—not that it matters much to the rest of the plot. When Sam asks why he never told her before, he answers, “I’m non-practicing.”

Goodman’s Sam is a climber, but not the Sammy Glick type. Her obsession with climbing doesn’t involve getting into Harvard or making it to the top of Hollywood. Rather, it’s about mastering those man-made footholds and handholds on a climbing wall, and the natural ones you find for yourself on a boulder or mountain.

A young woman makes her way forward without the cerebral and academic baggage we expect of a Goodman character.

In a note to readers, Goodman acknowledges the “material” that inspired her: “I am the mother of three bookish and well-behaved sons. When my boys were small, if I turned my back for a minute, they’d always be where I left them. Then I had a little girl. Miranda was never where I left her.” Miranda “literally climbed the walls, wedging herself up doorframes. It was this energy that inspired me to write SAM, a novel about a girl climbing, falling, and striving.”

Will that challenge some Goodman devotees? Think of Tolstoy without Russia, Austen without England, Colette without Paris. Don’t Goodman readers seek a rich Jewish milieu in which the infinite wrinkles play out of a people who always want to add a distinction to a distinction (after somebody points out the first distinction)? Can they embrace a female protagonist who’s nothing like most of the Goodman women they’ve hitched a ride with for years, who are well-educated, intellectual, ambitious in academic and philosophical ways?

Give Goodman credit for authorial courage. Consider, after all, her trajectory. Her first short story collection, Total Immersion (1989), published on the day she graduated from Harvard, sketched the challenges of observant Jews in Hawaii (where she grew up) and in Oxford, England. Her second book, The Family Markowitz (1996), brought a camera-eye to three generations of a Jewish family as they engage with Passover questions, the right bar mitzvah gift, spiritually surprising children, an interfaith conference and other challenges of a Jewish life.

Goodman is a writer who recognizes that what we lack in life shapes us as much as what we possess.

Goodman’s novel Kaaterskill Falls (1998) pulled the curtain back on the sociological frictions of modern Jewish life between Orthodox communities and the lure of the secular world. Her next, Paradise Park (2001), introduced Sharon Spiegelman, a non-practicing God-seeker from the Northeast who turns up in Goodman’s Hawaii.

From there, Goodman began surprising us. Intuition (2006), despite a Mendelssohn at its core, focused on research ethics in science. The Other Side of the Island (2008), Goodman’s foray into young-adult science fiction, jumped to radically new territory with the collapse of the ozone layer (though alert readers might note that the author includes an apocalyptic flood that consumes the earth).

The Cookbook Collector (2010) and The Chalk Artist (2017) both ratcheted the Jewish quotient down further, while never eliminating it completely. With SAM, Goodman seemingly turns the knob almost all the way to off. And not just on Jewish matters: She deftly pulls off a portrait of a young woman making her way forward without the cerebral and academic baggage we usually expect of a Goodman lead character.

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Sam grows up in a modest, somewhat dysfunctional family in Beverly, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Her mom, Courtney, works at humble jobs—salesperson at Staples, hair stylist at a salon—and “is just getting by.” Her dad, Mitchell, a ne’er-do-well juggler/magician, complete with accordion and unicycle, “is sort of around, sort of not.” He never married Courtney. Sam’s antisocial, five-years-younger half-brother, Noah, who lives with Sam and Courtney, has a different dad, Jack, who’s also not married to Courtney and doesn’t live with them. Courtney and Jack fight. Mitchell hates Jack, Jack hates Mitchell, and Jack doesn’t like Sam.

Many stretches of the novel are dialogue. Here’s an exchange between Sam and her mother when Sam’s just 7:

“I’m going to be a climber.”
“You can be a lot of things, but you have to learn to read.”
“I can read.”
“You can read, but you don’t.”
“That’s just because I don’t like it.”
“Which part don’t you like?”
“The books.”

As Sam grows up, Goodman’s unerring ear catches the attitudes between all parties: Sam’s pining for her dad; Courtney’s anger at Mitchell; Courtney’s ambitions for Sam; Noah’s simmering hostility; and Sam’s attraction to Declan, her climbing coach. For most readers, it’s the acutely rendered psychological skirmishing among all the players that will keep them turning pages. More challenging to some will be Goodman’s extended descriptions of the act of climbing. Goodman never kids about her passion for mastering concrete details of the activities that anchor her books. Sample passage:

When it’s her turn, she takes one sweeping glance at the bouldering wall and she climbs up, and it’s strange. Her feet support her, and her hands don’t slip. She can see the next hold, and the next. Her body knows its length and force, where to reach and where to pause, where to lunge, and where to take a breath. She does not falter. She does not freeze up, second-guessing. There is nothing about this wall that scares her. She is climbing well because she doesn’t care.

One could say that enjoying SAM’s many, many descriptions of climbing is a matter of taste. The accretion of physical detail presumably has an authorial purpose. From the moment Mitchell drives his seven-year-old daughter to the climbing wall at the Y and urges her to “be a monkey, Sam!” as she makes her first attempts, to the last pages of the novel when she dreams of her father standing below, cheering, “Come on, monkey!” it’s clear that Sam’s passion for climbing is all about bonding with a father who’s always slipping away. Goodman perhaps loads on the detail to disguise that emotional truth in a way that ultimately makes it more powerful.

Sam eventually enters high school and then North Shore Community College. Much of what ensues is what you’d expect of her: a growing thrust toward independence, a rising judgmental stance toward her parents, uncertainty about romance. Though Sam’s heartache over the gap with her father never closes, we also see her learn a lesson everyone does about parents. Goodman wouldn’t be the accomplished pointillist of character she’s become without being a master of subtlety, a writer who recognizes that what we lack in life shapes us as much as what we possess. A young woman doesn’t truly come of age, Goodman suggests, until she grasps that the time to reconcile with one’s parents is when it’s still possible.

Carlin Romano, Moment’s critic-at-large, teaches media theory and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania.

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