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A Stranger on the Planet [Kindle Edition]

Adam Schwartz
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)

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Book Description

In the summer of 1969, twelve-year-old Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, and his brother and sister in a two-bedroom apartment in New Jersey. His father lives with his new wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and suffocating love, her marriage to a man she’s known for two weeks, and his father’s cold disregard.
Over the next four decades, Seth becomes the keeper of his family’s memories and secrets. At the same time, he emotionally isolates himself from all those who love him, especially his mother. But Ruth is also Seth’s muse, and this enables him to ultimately find redemption, for both himself and his family.

Editorial Reviews Review

A Note to Readers from Adam Schwartz

When I was three years old, my mother enrolled me in a local nursery school and told the principal that I was a slow learner. I was sitting next to my mother when she said this, and on the way home I asked her why she had called me a slow learner. She replied that she had told a "white lie," because she thought I would get a better teacher if the principal thought I was a slow learner. Years later, as an adult, I brought this incident up with my mother and she told me that I misremembered it: She had told the principal I was a fast learner. I trusted my memory more than my mother's, but she was right: I am a slow learner. I've wanted to be a writer all my life, and now, in my fifties, I’m about to publish my first novel, A Stranger on the Planet. I’ve been working on it for more than twenty years, though I didn't know it at the time. In 1988, I published a short story in The New Yorker titled "The Grammar of Love." The story was vaguely based on my experiences teaching at an African American college in Chicago. It's a story about a man who emotionally isolates himself from love and human connection, and who learns to imaginatively inhabit the lives of the people closest to him. "The Grammar of Love" was my first published story and I received a great deal of attention for it. I was certain my literary career was on a clear and accelerated track: I would publish a book of short stories--my literary apprenticeship--in two years, and then write a novel. Well, books, like life, don't turn out the way you expect.

Why did my book of stories turn into a novel, and why did it take me so long to write it? I would probably need to write another book to fully answer those questions, but I think the brief answer is that I was figuring out how to write about a deeply complex and emotionally difficult subject--my family. My parents married when they were in college and divorced nine years and three children later. Neither of them had any business being parents--they didn’t know how to care for themselves, much less children. My challenge--my inspiration--in writing the book was to humanize them as much as possible, to imaginatively inhabit their lives. Many writers feel they need to get a book under their belt before they're ready to do justice to their true subject matter. I knew that I would eventually write a novel based on my family; I just didn't know that the short stories I was writing would turn into that book.

People who have read my novel ask me if it's autobiographical. I reply that everything in the novel is invented and that it's all absolutely true. For example, in the novel the character based on my father says to his son, "You remember everything that's not important." My father never actually said that to me, but it's something he might have said, and it is certainly true. I do seem to remember everything that has ever happened to me, no matter how random or odd, and my job as novelist is to transform my memories into something meaningful and redemptive. I think the central character of my novel, a man who is pulled between a desire to escape from his family and a longing to connect with them, learns something very similar. After many years, he finally masters the grammar of love.

From Publishers Weekly

Schwartz's debut novel is the touching and funny account of Seth Shapiro's dysfunctional but lovable family beginning in 1969, six years after his parents' traumatic divorce. His father starts a new family, but Seth and his twin sister and younger brother are left to deal with their unstable mother, Ruth--a devoted but self-absorbed woman who relies on her children for emotional support, picks the wrong men, and is always putting her foot in her mouth. Seth's adolescent embarrassment over his mother is both comical and uncomfortably familiar, and Schwartz captures these feelings with self-effacing, caustic wit. Scarred by his childhood, Seth struggles for decades with intimate relationships, and when he finally marries Molly, "the love of his life," he can't appreciate her. A tragedy brings the family back together, and amid the dry humor and the raw pain, there are some truly beautiful images. But while the balance between wit and emotion is sharply on point for most of the novel, the final third drifts into melancholy. While this does reflect Seth's newfound ability to communicate his emotions, it feels overwrought and out of sync from the sound narrative of the book's beginnings. (Jan.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Product Details

  • File Size: 450 KB
  • Print Length: 305 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1569478694
  • Publisher: Soho Press (January 25, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004FEFS5O
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #838,237 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A four-star book with lots of five-star moments January 3, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This fictional and comical memoir about a Jewish man's youth and his family grabs you right away, maintaining a galloping pace from start to finish. The marathon rhythm and gonzo narrative gets you through the first, rather (too) earnest and overeager pages, and before long you are installed in a compulsively readable, page-turning story that is endearing and funny.

Seth Shapiro is an aspiring writer from a family that puts the dis in dysfunction. His parents divorced when he was very young, and his father essentially abandoned the family for a new one--with a repressed and cruel French wife. Lots of angst and abandonment issues there. Seth is close to his twin sister, Sarah, but not so much with his younger brother, Seamus, who found solace in religion and ritual.

Seth, Sarah, and Seamus live with their mood-shifting mother, Ruth, who fails to edit herself or her feelings, often causing a bit of a role reversal with her kids. When she drinks, take cover. Ruth denigrates their father at every opportunity, but Seth is determined to win back his love, anyway.

Seth's hero is Saul Bellow, who is a distinct model for Adam Schwartz's writing style. There are also hints of Philip Roth, Jonathan Tropper, and Woody Allen--a pastiche of Jewish humorists and writers. (There is also a whiff of Brock Clarke.) While still in high school, Seth garners praise for a story, which helps his acceptance into the University of Chicago.

While in college, Seth writes a story called "A Stranger on the Planet," a fictionalization of his hapless and battered family life, which earns him high praise from an esteemed literature professor and a scholarly award.

Herein lies the problem.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Family To Belong To January 31, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
If there were a family lottery, Seth Shapiro would have been a loser. His mother is well-meaning but intrusive, with cringe-worthy observations like, "Oh, look, you have pubic hair, too! So does your sister." His father is married to the stepmother-from-hell, Hortense, who fine-tuned her mothering techniques from Mommie Dearest. His brother Seamus has gone Orthodox on him. And his sister Sarah pretends that she is a virgin so her mother won't pry into her personal life. No wonder he's constantly on a search to look for another family to belong to!

If this reminds you a little of, say, Jonathan Tropper - well, it's meant to. It's Jewish-American humor that's often belly-laughing funny and sometimes strikes close to home. Indeed, the entire first part of the novel - Seth's coming-of-age - is as if J.D. Salinger and the aforementioned Tropper collaborated to come up with a needy and endearing Jewish anti-hero.

As a teenager and college student, Seth gets his meaning in life from books. At one point, he muses about an impending talk with the college dean of admissions, "How could I explain to him that nothing felt real to me except the novels I read - not the other books I was supposed to read for school, not the grades I received, not the things I said to people - that something was always lost in translation between my feelings and actions, that, except for books, everything about my life felt alien to me." Seth ends up losing himself in books and his own writing; a short story he writes called "A Stranger In The Planet" is acknowledged by those close to him as being literary genius, finally affirming him.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars funny...and sad January 18, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Seth Shapiro lives with his mom, Ruth, who could have had her own sitcom (a spinoff of Rhoda?) his twin sister, Sarah and his brother Seamus (named by the neighbor from Ireland and sounding like one of Woody Allen's kids). His parents are divorced. While Seth's family lives in a small New Jersey apartment, his father, remarried to a pretentious French woman, Hortense (great name!!) and their son, Francois, resides in Cambridge, with a second home in Wellfleet. There are some really funny moments in the first part of the book, when Seth and Sarah act as a team against Hortense's Joan Crawford tactics, and when Seth swims across the pond to meet Zelda, a high school girl with whom he loses his virginity. When he gets back, late, his father, about whom there is NOTHING to like, has called the police and is furious because he will have to pay for the emergency services, including dragging the pond. Meanwhile Ruth has married an exercise instructor from a Catskills resort whom she has known for one weekend. He is even less likable than the kids' father. Eventually Seth gets accepted to the University of Chicago, which his father thinks is too expensive. The second part of the book is interesting enough while Seth attends the University, but after he graduates, it starts to drag. He's teaching students at a community college on the South Side to translate Black English sentences into standard English. His only friend is a blind neighbor, with whom he goes to the movies and eats at a Jewish deli staffed by Vietnamese. None of this is funny, although it may have been intended to be, and nothing really happens. Some of these people have terrible lives, like the young woman who brings her baby to class every day because she literally has no one to leave him with. Read more ›
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved the characters
I first learned about Adam Schwartz from a short story I read in an anthology for teens. I loved that story so much that I looked up the author and found out he had a new novel! Read more
Published 19 months ago by Jyotsna Sreenivasan
2.0 out of 5 stars Good start, then disappointment
I bought this book because I saw a great review of it in a newspaper. It was interesting at the start, but I found myself
losing interest in the main character as the story... Read more
Published 21 months ago by Ronald D. Sanfield
4.0 out of 5 stars Engaging
An interesting read, frustrating though it can be at times. The author is upfront about A Stranger on the Planet being essentially a pasting together of short stories he's written... Read more
Published on June 20, 2012 by James Horlan
4.0 out of 5 stars No need to be Jewish to enjoy
This was a very fast read for me. A meant to be comic story told from the point of view of the oldest son about yet another dysfunctional family. Read more
Published on February 11, 2012 by K. Cade
4.0 out of 5 stars The Shapiros
Seth Shapiro is blessed, some would say cursed, with the ability to remember all the little things that have ever happened to him. Read more
Published on February 2, 2012 by Sam Sattler
4.0 out of 5 stars A Portrait of a Troubled Man Trying to Find Himself
Seth Shapiro is a very complicated character. His father left his mother when he was young and left her to raise Seth, his twin sister Sarah and their younger brother Seamus. Read more
Published on April 29, 2011 by Michael A. Newman
2.0 out of 5 stars I don't like whiners
There seems to be a trend in the last year for books about "abused" middle-class teens who turn to drugs and trouble because of their lack of parental appreciation. Read more
Published on April 24, 2011 by M. B. Walters
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging, Witty, Touching. An Excellent Novel.
Originally, I wanted to label this book a "coming of age" tale, but Schwartz covers approximately 30 years of the main character's life. Read more
Published on April 18, 2011 by Matthew Coenen
5.0 out of 5 stars Worth A Read
A STRANGER ON THE PLANET is one of the most beautiful novels that I have read in many years. I had read and loved Schwartz's short stories in The New Yorker, and was excited to... Read more
Published on April 1, 2011 by cag
3.0 out of 5 stars The Boy Who Remembered Everything
"A Stranger On The Planet - A Novel" is an odd duck of a book. It may be fiction but it is not a novel. It is a memoir in short story form. Read more
Published on March 16, 2011 by Alan Dorfman
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More About the Author

Here is an interview with me in The New Yorker. The interview tells about how I came to write A STRANGER ON THE PLANET, discusses the themes of the book, my writing process, and the connection between my life and the book. Feel free to email me with any questions at


March 22, 2011
The Exchange: Adam Schwartz

Posted by Sally Law
In the July 18, 1988, issue of The New Yorker, Adam Schwartz published "The Grammar of Love," a short story based on his teaching experiences in Chicago. He followed with the publication of "This Bed" in the June 22, 1992, issue, and earlier this year, both stories were incorporated into the novel "A Stranger on the Planet," which follows Seth Shapiro through his life. We meet Seth as a lost adolescent, and watch him become a somewhat-less-lost man. Seth and his family are, as Schwartz says, "New Jersey Jews behaving badly"--his mother is needy; his twin sister is pragmatic yet willful; and his father, who is married to the French woman that broke up his marriage to Seth's mother, is cold and later estranged. Also estranged is Seth's brother, Seamus, who responds to his family's distress by becoming orthodox.

Recently, Schwartz and I exchanged e-mails about truth, divorce, and the writing life; an edited version of our exchange appears below.

How did "The Grammar of Love" and "This Bed" become part of a novel published twenty years after their publication?

I had thought that the stories I was publishing in The New Yorker would be part of a short-story collection--my apprentice book. But because the characters in my stories were so similar, I decided to turn the book into a collection of related stories about the same cast of characters. Once I began writing about the same characters, the stories became more open-ended and longer. Writing these novella-length fictions was both exhilarating and depressing--exhilarating because I felt liberated from the formal demands of the exquisitely wrought short story (I wanted my short stories to have the richness and density of a novel, and writing them felt like trying to coax an elephant into a doll house), depressing because the stories were too long--forty or fifty pages--to be published. Writing fifteen-thousand word stories is not a great career move unless you're Alice Munro.

"This Bed" fit seamlessly into the novel because it's about a penultimate moment in the lives of the central characters. "The Grammar of Love," the story I published in 1988, was more challenging to incorporate into the novel because, as originally published, the subject matter--Seth's adventures teaching at an all-black college in Chicago--was more removed from the chapters about the Shapiro family and Seth's love life. I had lived in the Hyde Park section of Chicago from 1978 to 1982, but then I didn't return until 2005, when I went to a professional conference in Chicago. I was supposed to stay at the Drake hotel in downtown Chicago, but instead I rented a dorm room in the International House at the University of Chicago. I spent hours walking the streets of Hyde Park, retracing my steps, so to speak, through the story I had written many years earlier. That return visit to Chicago was a major turning point for me in the composition of the novel. It rekindled Chicago in my imagination, and I ended up setting about one hundred pages of the book in Chicago. In fact, I completely blew off the conference I was supposed to attend and spent most of my three days there holed up in my rented dorm room writing "Virgins," the long chapter set at the University of Chicago.

"The Grammar of Love" is based on your teaching experiences. How much of the novel is autobiographical?

When I wrote "The Grammar of Love," I learned to write myself away from the facts of my life and to create a parallel fictional universe. Yes, I did teach at an all-black college in Chicago, but virtually every detail in the story is invented. In early drafts, I'd include amusing details drawn directly from my experiences--for example, one of my students kept asking me if I'd teach her how to drive--but those details just didn't come to life in the world of the story. The details I invented were more alive on the page than the things I actually experienced. Is my novel autobiographical? I can reasonably say that most of it is invented and that it's all true--true to a fictional universe that parallels my own life. The parents in the novel bear a very close resemblance to my real parents, and I did live in the same places where my protagonist lives. But one of Seth's most important relationships is with Sarah, his twin sister, and I don't have a twin sister. Several years ago, I was sitting at my desk on a Saturday morning writing a story about a character based on my mother when the phone rang--it was my mother, of course. I was irritated that she had interrupted my writing, but then my mood brightened when I heard the profound dissonance between the voice in my ear and the character in my head. It meant that my writing was going well, that the character based on my mother had a fictional life of her own.

The novel explores plagiarizing and inauthenticity, both in writing and in life. What led you to that theme? How does being a child of divorce influence the perception of truth, for both you and for Seth?

That theme is very directly connected to the central concern of the novel--how does one invent a self? Early on in the book, at the end of the second chapter, Seth says, "Between the distant poles of my mother and father, I felt as if I were trying to navigate my way in the middle of some vast white tundra." He's twenty years old and his life is a blank canvas, but he doesn't know how to create a self because his parents pull him in such opposite directions. He has no models, no sense of who he is, so he plagiarizes and appropriates other people's stories. In high school, he wins a writing prize by submitting a story partially plagiarized from a Saul Bellow story, and that prize helps him to get into the University of Chicago; at Chicago, he writes a story based on a painful episode from his girlfriend's life. His girlfriend, Rachel, is furious with him--she accuses him of violating her trust--but his achievement in that story is authentic; Rachel's story provides him with a medium through which to tell his own.

My parents divorced when I was six, and I believe that event turned me into a first-class liar. My world was broken, and I could only fix it through my imagination. When I was in second grade, my father had come to visit for a weekend. He was his usual cold self, remote, palpably bored. At school on Monday morning, the teacher called on me for show and tell. I didn't have anything to show, so I told a whopping fish story about my father's visit that weekend--I think we ended up being pulled out to sea without a boat. Every time the teacher interrupted me to ask if my story were really true, I'd respond with a more exaggerated lie. I was trying to invent a relationship with my father, of course. In my novel, Seth's father says to him, "You know what your problem is? You remember everything that's not important." My father never actually said that to me, but it's something he might have said, and it rings so true for me, that in conversations with people I'll repeat that line as if my father really said it. More than forty years later, I'm still doing the same thing--telling lies about my father in order to revise my relationship with him. I suppose I'm acting out the theme of plagiarism too--if I count plagiarizing from myself.

Are you most drawn to writing about romantic love, or family love? Or are the two hopelessly intertwined?

All of the above! Seth's relationship with his mother, Ruth, drives the novel, so in that sense writing about family love came more easily. But Seth has two important romantic relationships in the book--with his college girlfriend, Rachel, and with Molly, the woman he's married to for a brief period of time. The chapter about Seth and Molly's relationship was the most difficult section of the book to write. It's nearly sixty-five pages, but I found that length extremely confining for credibly capturing the ebb and flow of a romantic relationship. In draft after draft of that chapter, I found myself resorting to various forms of narrative short-hand to convey the arc and the rhythms of Seth and Molly's brief but intense courtship and marriage. Writing about Seth and Rachel was much easier because their relationship develops over twenty years. After they graduate from college, Rachel comes out to Seth as a lesbian, but he never really falls out love with her. In an earlier draft, the novel ended with a long chapter about Rachel and Seth going to China so that Seth can assist Rachel in adopting a baby. The premise was prompted by the experience of a gay friend. She and her partner were adopting a baby in China, but the adoption agency told her not to travel to China with another woman, especially her partner, so she went with an old boyfriend. When Seth and Rachel get to China, nothing turns out as expected--the baby bonds with Seth and rejects Rachel, and long-dormant romantic feelings between Seth and Rachel complicate things even more. The chapter was titled "Like Family," in part because it deals with the intertwining of family and romantic love.

Do you think you'll rework that chapter for another project?

I'd certainly like to try. My daughter is adopted from China, and I lived in Shanghai for a year, so I'm very drawn to the material and to the idea of how families create themselves.

Seth has been called an "anti-hero"--do you agree with that assessment?

I think that's fair; readers use the label because they see Seth as always undermining himself. The term "anti-hero" never came to my mind when I was writing the book, but I did very consciously think of Seth as the "anti-Nathan Zuckerman." Partly I was reacting to my self-consciousness about inhabiting the same fictional territory as Philip Roth--I was writing comic fiction about New Jersey Jews behaving badly. But, more substantially, I was drawn to the theme of the competing demands between art and life in Roth's novels, especially in "The Ghost Writer." Unlike Zuckerman, Seth can't place art before life; he can't free himself from the bonds of convention and family in pursuit of his art.

I was completing the final revisions of the novel during the first two weeks of January 2010 when I read an essay by Adam Gopnik titled "Van Gogh's Ear." Reading that essay cast my novel into very dramatic relief for me. The essay is too complex for me to fairly summarize here, but at the end of it Gopnik writes that great modern artists like Van Gogh "bet their life" on their art; art patrons, on the other hand, people who love art but don't create it, place more timid wagers. Seth is an anti-hero because he always bets the house odds; he abandons his writing to play percentage baseball with his life--and it costs him more dearly than if he had bet his life on art.


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