SAM by Allegra Goodman

Remember me? I used to blog about books here. Sheesh. It’s been a while.

To make up for the lack of posts, here’s a review of a book I really liked. Probably a 4.5 or 5 star read. It’s Sam, my first book by Allegra Goodman, and it came out last year. Sam is a character-driven coming-of-age story about a girl navigating childhood and adolescence. That’s pretty much it – not a lot of drama. But it was so good. I love Goodman’s writing and I was totally taken by this sensitive story about a girl growing and maturing while living an ordinary life.

Why I picked it up: I saw this book all over the place last year, and on a recent trip to Parnassus Bookstore, I decided to grab it.

Sam lives outside Boston with her mother Courtney and younger half brother Noah. Her father, a creative type with substance abuse issues who can’t keep a job, comes in and out of her life with frustrating inconsistency, which makes it hard for Sam to emotionally trust people. Courtney is trying to make ends meet as a single mom, and is often frazzled and distracted but provides consistency and support for Sam.

Sam goes through typical challenges of adolescence –loss of a good friend, conflict with Courtney’s boyfriend, disinterest in school – which Goodman handles with sensitivity and empathy. Sam’s father turns her on to rock climbing as a young girl, and climbing provides a through line during her childhood. Sometimes she pursues it vigorously and sometimes she turns away from it, her passion for the sport loosely tracking her relationship with her father. Her feelings about climbing – an activity she associates viscerally with her father – thus become complicated and loaded, yet she tells no one about them.

What I liked about Sam: it is an utterly personal glimpse into another person’s life. In the back of the book, Goodman writes that she intentionally changed the writing style of the book as it progressed, using simple sentences and vocabulary when Sam was young and moving to more complex emotions and sophistication as Sam aged. Her strategy was subtle yet effective, guiding the reader to mature along with her title character. So while the story may seem straightforward, there is actually a lot going on in this book, not only within Sam but within its pages.

For readers who need a lot of plot, Sam may disappoint. But for readers who enjoy interior books, who enjoy the interplay between story and language, Sam will be a deeply satisfying read.

I listened to Sam on audio. It is narrated by Rebecca Lowman, who is the perfect narrator for this book. Her delivery always sounds a little lonely and angry to me – I’ve listened to tons of her books – and she was a great choice for a book about a lonely, sometimes angry, girl.

Sam was the 6th (slowest reading start to a year ever!) book of 2024 and satisfies the One Word Title category of the 2024 EDIWTB Reading Challenge.