This Is Girlhood, Warts and All

SAM, by Allegra Goodman

In her latest novel, “Sam,” Allegra Goodman delivers a portrait of a girl at risk that shimmers with an unusual intimacy and depth. Her title character is 7 at the start of the book, living in Beverly, Mass., with her mother, Courtney, a hairdresser, and her brother, Noah, who is 2. To get away from Noah, who thinks his name may really be “No,” Sam climbs the walls — or actually the doorjambs — inch by tenuous inch.

Courtney, a crushingly good-hearted and hardworking 26-year-old with children by two men, both unreliable, tells Sam the habit is getting old. But when Sam’s father, Mitchell, a magician, juggler, occasional palm reader and poet, arrives to pick Sam up and sees her hovering in the doorway, he seems impressed: “‘Hey, monkey,’ her dad says. ‘When did you learn to do that?’”

Mitchell has happy memories of rock climbing as a teenager in a boulder-filled public park in Gloucester called Red Rocks. As with most of his interests, the hobby was abandoned, so maybe there’s hope for a generational do-over at play for him. Likely his ego is activated by the thought of his daughter having not just an inherited talent but an inherited courage. He takes Sam to a climbing gym that offers scholarships and then he promises to get her there every Saturday.

But there is a disruption in the plan. After Mitchell butts heads with Noah’s terrifyingly volatile father, Jack, he disappears. His absences are habitual; Mitchell is a man of fleeting relationships and workplace failures. We never doubt his love for Sam, though he is limited in his capacity as a parent. There are indications of substance abuse and mental health challenges but Goodman, author of eight previous books, including “The Family Markowitz,” “The Cookbook Collector” and the young-adult novel “The Other Side of the Island,”keeps the specifics vague.

This is one of the many strengths of this tenderhearted novel; we learn Sam’s family back story as children do, through hints and overheard snippets. In the earliest chapters, Goodman frequently writes in the cadence of the various parental instructions Sam receives. For instance, Courtney, a college dropout, wants her children, both lackluster students, to go to college, so her lessons include admonitions that Sam hears as fact — if you don’t do your homework, you’ll have to live in other people’s houses, borrow leaf blowers and never get to go out at night. Courtney is a hero single mother, working two jobs for most of Sam’s childhood, including a shift at Staples. She makes mistakes, particularly romantic ones, but is fiercely committed. Mitchell’s contributions include excuses — he’s an artist, that’s why he travels — and notes on all the ways the world can screw you.

Years later, as Sam is about to turn 18, she and Courtney and Noah visit Mitchell at an equine therapy farm where he is working with the horses, all rescue animals. The job is another fresh start, another place of hope, and Mitchell seems happy as he talks about the value of the therapy for horse and human. By now, Sam is cynical about her father — and astute: “Her dad has that light in his eyes he gets when he’s performing. Some people tell lies about the past. Her dad tells lies about the future. He is always telling a new story.” When Mitchell talks about winning over damaged horses with patience, Sam “looks at him like Stop. Don’t put me in your metaphor.”

Meanwhile, we’re in Goodman’s metaphor. Rock climbing, and the tenacity required to do it, stands for getting out of the financial and emotional hole a girl like Sam is born into. For her, the literal climbing is a lot more fun, and success more achievable. By the time she’s a young adult, she’s endured heartbreak and has plenty of reason not to trust people, perhaps including herself. She’s more interested in working and hanging out with a group of cool 20-somethings at Red Rocks than she is in the accounting program Courtney wants her to pursue. A triumph for Sam is the chance to buy Noah new hockey skates instead of the used ones he’s accustomed to.

But as Sam grows steadily stronger and better at rock climbing, finding new routes upward where none seemed possible, her inner life shifts as well. In Goodman’s highly skilled hands, this metaphor never feels contrived. An exquisite slice of life bigger than its heroine alone, “Sam” is reminiscent of “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s 2014 cinematic portrait of a boy from childhood to early adulthood. That’s a high compliment. If it feels like Sam must live on in the world after the novel is done, the same way Mason does in “Boyhood,” it’s because Goodman has so genuinely inhabited a real identity: the kid primed to fall through the cracks who somehow doesn’t. Sam is the embodiment of Courtney’s dignity in an undignified world, with Mitchell’s magic lodged in her soul. She’s hope, quietly writing her own story.

Mary Pols is the author of a memoir, “Accidentally on Purpose,” and recently finished her first novel. She works at Bates College.

SAM | By Allegra Goodman | 336 pp. | The Dial Press | $28

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