Seth Shapiro is blessed, some would say cursed, with the ability to remember all the little things that have ever happened to him. His estranged father tells Seth that he remembers “everything that’s not important.” Perhaps what Seth remembers is unimportant to everyone else, but each specific incident he recounts in Adam Schwartz’s debut novel, A Stranger on the Planet, marks him deeply and helps make him into the man he becomes.
It is 1969 and the Shapiro family, having been abandoned by Seth’s father, is down to four: twins, Seth and Sarah; little brother Seamus; and Ruth, their 35-year-old mother. Dr. Shapiro has moved out of state to start a family with his new French wife and Ruth is overly anxious about finding a new father-figure for the children. Unfortunately for all of them, Ruth is the kind of woman willing to accept just about anyone she can plug into that slot.
The kindest thing one can say about Ruth’s relationship with her three children is that she means well. She wants the best for them but, deep down inside, it is really all about Ruth. Hers is such a fragile ego that she relies on her children for the kind of emotional support she should be offering them. That their father seems oblivious to their existence (despite the financial support he provides), compounds their emotional instability.
Seth, Sarah, and Seamus respond quite differently to their dysfunctional upbringing. Seamus, too young to remember much about his father, looks to a strict adherence to his Jewish faith for the stability and structure he needs in his life. Sarah and Seth turn to each other for that kind of stability, but react differently to their father’s indifference toward them. On the one hand, Sarah accepts her father for what he is: a man too cowardly to confront his new wife’s feelings about his first family. On the other, Seth never stops yearning for his father’s respect and love, but does not recognize how much alike he and his father are. Each of them, to his detriment, finds it impossible to express his emotions.
Much of this coming-of-age novel is funny, some of it even laugh-out-loud funny – especially when Seth, in his refusal to compromise his beliefs or feelings, uses his wit and biting tongue to deflate the pretentiousness he often encounters. But, as the years pass, and Seth continues his struggle to understand himself and his family, the serious tone of the novel becomes more and more evident. The tragedy of a young man who cannot relate to the mother who raised him, but pines for the love of a father who wants as little to do with him as possible, can be hard to watch. There is a lot to take from this one.
Rated at: 4.0