Pulitzer winner Powers (
The Overstory) offers up a marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculations about alien life. Astrophysicist Theo Byrne simulates worlds outside Earth’s solar system as part of lobbying efforts for a new spaceborne telescope. As a single parent in Madison, Wis., his work takes a back seat—his wife, Aly, mother of their nine-year-old, Robin, died two years earlier. Theo shares his fictional descriptions of life on exoplanets with Robin in the form of bedtime stories, and they bond over a Trumpian administration’s hostility to scientific research. Theo allows Robin to protest neglect of endangered species at the state capitol, despite Robin’s volatile behavior. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD, and Theo refuses to give him psychoactive medication (“Life is something we need to stop correcting,” goes Theo’s new “crackpot theory”). More cutting-edge is the neurofeedback program run by an old friend of Aly’s, who trains Robin to model his emotions from a record saved of Aly’s brain activity. It works, for a while—the tragic, bittersweet plot has some parallels to Flowers to Algernon. The planetary descriptions grow a bit repetitive and don’t gain narrative traction, but in the end, Powers transforms the wrenching story into something sublime. Though it’s not his masterpiece, it shows the work of a master. (Sept.)
"Extraordinary.…Powers’s insightful, often poetic prose draws us at once more deeply toward the infinitude of the imagination
and more vigorously toward the urgencies of the real and familiar stakes rattling our persons and our planet."
"Powers [has] an emotional core to everything he writes, and this sets him apart from nearly everyone."
"A heartrending tale of loss.…Powers continues to raise bold questions about the state of our world and the cumulative effects of our mistakes."
"Richard Powers is one of our country’s greatest living writers. He composes some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read. I’m in awe of his talent."
"The tenderness between father and son seem[s] so real and heartfelt that the novel becomes its own empathy machine. What’s more powerful, though, is how the emotions
Bewilderment evokes expand far beyond the bond of father and son to embrace the living world."
Minneapolis Star Tribune - Ellen Atkins
Bewilderment, [Powers's] mastery strikes a new vein.…it raises goosebumps and breaks our hearts."
The Brooklyn Rail - John Domini
"[Powers] wants to challenge our innate anthropocentrism, both in literature and how we live."
New York Times - Alexandra Alter
The Overstory, Powers seamlessly yet indelibly melds science and humanity, hope and despair."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - Dale Singer
"[A]stounding.…a must-read novel.…It’s urgent and profound and takes readers on a unique journey that will leave them questioning what we’re doing to the only planet we have."
Associated Press - Rob Merrill
"Immersive and astonishing.…Powers captures the tragedy of a species that could, but perhaps won’t, become a lasting part of a cosmic menagerie. But in this absorbing and effortlessly readable tale he seems to have also found uplifting poetry in our despair."
"Achingly current and wise."
Washington Post - Bethanne Patrick
"One of America’s most ambitious and imaginative novelists.... In a year of unprecedented worldwide drought, fire, and flooding, [
Bewilderment] couldn’t be timelier.... Whether concerning family or nature, this heart-rending tale warns us to take nothing for granted."
Boston Globe - Alexander C. Kafka
Bewilderment channels both the cosmic sublime and that of the vast American outdoors, resting confidently in a lineage with Thoreau and Whitman, Dillard and Kerouac."
"Searing ... seamlessly blends science, emotion and philosophy in a way that only [Powers] can."
Newsweek - Juliana Rose Pignataro
"Intimate.…Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change."
Los Angeles Times - Carolyn Kellogg
Bewilderment is a cri de coeur.…this is a hauntingly intimate story set within the privacy of one family trapped in the penumbra of mourning."
Washington Post - Ron Charles
"Powers succeeds in engaging both head and heart. And through its central story of bereavement, this novel of parenting and the environment becomes a multifaceted exploration of mortality."
"An unabashed tearjerker.... The most moving and inspiring of all Powers’s books."
The New Republic - Gish Jen
Bewilderment is a big book about what matters most.…a brilliant, engrossing, and ultimately heartbreaking book."
Seattle Times - David Laskin
"Soaring descriptions and forthright observations about our planet.... Offers rich commentary on the complex, often mystifying intersections between science, popular culture, and politics.... As the best-selling
The Overstory continues to reverberate, readers will be excited to turn to another deeply involving Powers novel."
Theo Byrne, a widowed astrobiologist who imagines life on other planets, is brought down to earth by his son Robin, whose irascibility and erratic moods are driving school authorities to distraction. Theo's only recourse is to put his own work aside and make Robin the center of his universe. The Byrnes' one remaining vestige of Robin's late mother is a brain scan, recorded years before in an experiment. Here is where Powers's story intersects with Daniel Keyes's
Flowers for Algernon. Robin undergoes a form of behavior modification called decoded neurofeedback treatment, using his mother's brain scan. He improves at first, but then becomes fascinated with the natural world, captivated to the point of overzealousness, leading to the erosion of hard-won progress. And as Robin's emotional state reaches a state of relative equilibrium, Theo seems to take on some of the characteristics Robin has left behind, even to the point of openly criticizing the psychologist trying to help his son. VERDICT Writing with the same remarkable attention to detail found in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory, Powers has created a world and characters that will suck readers in and keep them fixed until the literally bitter end. —Michael Russo, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge
A widower pursues an unusual form of neurological therapy for his son in this affecting story.
Astrobiologist Theo Byrne, 45, looks for life in outer space while his 9-year-old son, Robin, seeks to protect endangered animals on Earth. Both are still grieving for the boy’s mother, Alyssa, an animal rights activist who died in a car accident two years ago as she swerved to avoid hitting an opossum. Since then, Robin has been subject to tantrums and violence and variously diagnosed with Asperger’s, OCD, and ADHD. Theo has resisted medication and turns to a university colleague who is experimenting with a neurological therapy. Powers has followed his awarding-winning, bestselling
The Overstory (2018), a busy eco-epic featuring nine main characters, with this taut ecological parable borne by a small cast. It’s a darker tale, starting with an author’s note about Flowers for Algernon and continuing through Robin’s emotional maelstrom, Theo’s parental terrors, and, not far in the background, environmental and political challenges under a Trump-like president. Yet there are also shared moments of wonder and joy for a father and son attuned to science and nature and each other, as well as flashbacks that make Alyssa a vibrant presence. The empathy that holds this nuclear family together also informs Robin’s ceaseless concern and efforts on behalf of threatened species, just as the absence of empathy fuels the threat. As always, there’s a danger of preachiness in such stories. Powers generally avoids it by nurturing empathy for Robin. While the boy’s obsession with the fate of the planet’s nonhuman life can seem like religious fervor, it has none of the cant or self-interest. He is himself a rare and endangered species.
A touching novel that offers a vital message with uncommon sympathy and intelligence.