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Allegra Goodman’s ‘Sam’ offers a simple but complex reflection of one girl’s life

Goodman's new novel offers a truthful and sometimes heartbreaking look at adolescence.

Allegra Goodman’s new novel, “Sam,” begins simply:

“There is a girl, and her name is Sam. She has a mother named Courtney and a dad who is sort of around, sort of not.”

That sets the scene for a coming-of-age story that follows Sam from ages 7 to nearly 20. Sam lives with her single working mother and her half-brother, Noah, who has emotional and behavioral issues. Sam’s father, Mitchell, is a magician and a musician and is a loving presence — when he’s around. But because he struggles with addiction, he floats in and out of Sam’s life in chaotic and heartbreaking ways.

As a pre-teen, Sam discovers rock-climbing, and the sport becomes a way of focusing her anxieties as well as trying to capture the attention and praise of her father. Her family’s financial struggles mean Sam can’t buy new climbing shoes or even get a ride to practice, but the sport gives her purpose. As a teenager, Sam develops feelings for her twentysomething climbing coach, and that leads to troubling but predictable results.

Later in the novel, we see Sam trying to plan for her future. That includes the inevitable push-pull of college and home. Like many teens and young adults, Sam vacillates between the comfort of the familiar and the excitement of what’s to come.

Goodman’s writing style is practically its own character in this novel. Her simple sentences have the feel of a children’s picture book, which honestly gets annoying at times. But the spare language belies a story that’s nuanced and complicated. The book reminded me a lot of the 2018 film, “Eighth Grade,” a truthful and often cringeworthy look at the perils of adolescence. At its core, “Sam” is about a girl who grows up. But it’s also about family, class, love, lust, joy, grief, and all the other things that happen along the way.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.