Donoghue’s underwhelming latest features a troubled doppelgänger of the sweet naïf from her best-known novel, Room, a foul-mouthed 11-year-old named Michael, whose great-uncle Noah takes him to the French Riviera to save him from the foster care system after Michael’s father dies of an apparent overdose and his mother, who is in prison, is unable to care for him. In the present day, Noah, having discovered some photographs taken by his mother during the two years she spent in Vichy France, and wishing to discover their significance, travels to Nice with Michael in tow. Dialogue between the two predominates as they wander about the city, constantly squabbling along predictably generational lines, searching for clues about whether Noah’s mother was a Nazi collaborator or part of the Resistance. The reader is soon exasperated with Noah’s own collaboration with the author, who won’t let him solve the mystery without Michael’s age-appropriate technological savvy. This work seems like a pale redux of Room, with its depiction of the wonder of a sheltered boy supplanted by the cynicism of a damaged one, whose voice doesn’t always ring true. The gap between Michael’s view of the world and the reader’s feels less charged than it should be, though the book makes up for it to some degree with a very satisfying denouement. This is a minor work in Donoghue’s astounding oeuvre. (Sept.)
Revisiting his birthplace in France, a retired university professor reckons with his past—and, unexpectedly, the future in the form of a great-nephew.
Noah hasn't seen Nice since his mother sent him to join his father in the U.S. when he was 4, during World War II. He plans to celebrate his 80th birthday there, and he certainly wasn't planning to take along 11-year-old Michael, illegitimate son of Noah's ne'er-do-well nephew, Victor. But Michael's mother is in jail on drug charges—probably taking the rap for Victor, who subsequently OD'd—and the grandmother who was taking care of the boy just died; there is literally no one else, says the desperate social worker who phones Noah as a last resort. With her characteristic storytelling brio, Donoghue (The Lotterys Plus One, 2017, etc.) sets up a fraught situation with multiple unresolved issues. Instead of a leisurely visit to Nice, possibly tracking down the locations of some enigmatic photographs his mother took during the war, Noah is stuck with a foulmouthed, sullen tween who rarely lifts his eyes from his battered phone. Granted, it's predictable that this mismatched pair will ultimately come to grudging mutual respect and even affection, but Donoghue keeps sentimentality to a minimum and deftly maintains a suspenseful plot. Michael's digital skills come in handy as Noah investigates the unpleasant possibility that his mother was a Nazi collaborator, and his (minimal) confidences reveal a history of poverty and loss that makes the boy's thorny character understandable. Noah, still holding internal conversations with his beloved wife, Joan, nine years after her death, knows something about loss, and he struggles to be patient. Donoghue's realistic portrait of Michael includes enough rudeness and defiance to make the pair's progress toward détente bumpy and believable. The story of Noah's mother turns out to be more complicated and even sadder than he had feared, leading to a beautiful meditation on how we preserve the past as we prepare for the future. Noah and Michael, humanly flawed and all the more likable for that, deserve their happy ending.
Not as ambitious or challenging as Donoghue in absolute top form (say, Room), but readable, well crafted, and absorbing.
From the Publisher
"We are never too old, Donoghue reminds us, to emerge from our childish dusks. What begins as a larky story of unlikely male bonding turns into an off-center but far richer novel about the unheralded, imperfect heroism of two women Michael's incarcerated mother and Noah's long deceased one and the way we preserve the past and prepare for the future."New York Times
"Soul stirring."O Magazine
"Donoghue has done an excellent job of blending history with an unforgettable story of a young boy and an old man. This a book not to be missed."The Missourian
"A subtle, entertaining portrait of the relationshipand frictionbetween age and youth."The Economist
"Continuously charming."Washington Post Book World
Recently retired professor Noah Selvaggio, nearing his 80th birthday, decides to visit his hometown of Nice, France. As a child, Noah was sent to live with his father in America while his mother cared for his ailing grandfather at the close of World War II. Before he leaves, Noah finds an envelope containing random photographs that could have only been taken by his mother in the years they were separated. His curiosity is piqued, but before he can investigate, he learns he is the only living relative of his deceased nephew's 11-year-old son, Michael. Reluctantly, Noah agrees to take Michael along, though the two couldn't be more different. Michael grew up without a father, his mother in prison. In Nice, the odd couple start to piece together the puzzle of the photos using Noah's knowledge of her life and Michael's sharp observations. VERDICT Donoghue (Room) nestles a quiet mystery in the growing relationship between two different family members as Noah sees through Michael's tough kid act and Michael (and readers) learn what the French in Nazi-occupied Nice had to endure. Readers interested in World War II or family drama will find this a fascinating read.—Brooke Bolton, Boonville-Warrick Cty. P.L., IN