Michael Gruber's The Good Son is simply an outstanding political thriller.
The plot itself is hard to compress into a simple paragraph; other reviewers will do that for you anyhow. Suffice to say that a conference with a theme of bringing peace to the Pakistani/Afghan/Kashmir area, viewed by its attendees through the prism of psychotherapy and psychology rather than straight politics, is hijacked by one of the multiple factions of jihadis infesting the area. Sonia Laghari, a highly unconventional woman with a highly unconventional family, is one of those abducted, and her son, Theo, one-time muj fighting against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 80s, and now killer commando doing black ops for the US Army, decides he must rescue her.
However, that's the least of it. Additional characters include the extended Pakistani family, ranging from 'businessman' of a certain sort to corrupt ISI leaders, fanatical jihadis and loving family men; the jihadi captors in their various factions, as well as the villagers living around them; and, in Washington DC, operatives from the CIA and NSA who are involved to a greater or lesser degree in the kidnapping and/or trying to prevent a nuclear disaster. Each of the characters is superbly drawn, vivid and fleshed out, fully believeable and outfitted with real and conflicting motivations. The story is masterfully told.
The three major plot lines develop more or less simultaneously, each told from a different POV. Sonia works through a combination of Sufi wisdom and self-control, and Jungian psychological insight and dream interpretation, to get under the skin and into the heads of the jihadis, while keeping the group of hostages from disintegrating, as the muj start cutting off heads. Theo gives us a great deal of back history while organizing a rogue rescue mission. Cynthia Lam, an NSA language specialist, is picking up on conflicting information from cell phones in Pakistan which seem to indicate a potential nightmare scenario; what should she do about this, in an environment where her superiors seem to have a pre-existing bias to a certain explanation over her own interpretations?
Gruber handles each aspect of the story brilliantly, particularly Sonia's extremely delicate role in dealing with her Muslim captors. We get poetry, Jung, intelligence, hostage negotiations, factional infighting, and theological discussions, all of it well presented. The underlying theme of attitudes of the local Muslims to God, women, religion, foreign presence in their lives, is all there, balanced and nuanced. The attitude and modus operandi of the Americans is presented as well, unfortunately all too realistically.
I cannot say enough about how well-written, thoughtful, complete and engrossing novel. It is sensitive, highly intelligent, insightful, complex, and thoroughly enjoyable.
I have enjoyed Michael Gruber's psychological thrillers in the past, such as TROPIC OF NIGHT and THE BOOK OF AIR AND SHADOWS. They come nearer to the straight novel than most thrillers, in the relative complexity of their characters and their unusual settings. With THE GOOD SON, however, Gruber enters Clancy or Ludlum territory, with a novel that is more frankly political and of the moment. In a sentence: Sonia Laghari, an American married to a Pakistani, gets taken hostage by militants in Pakistan, and her son Theo uses his special forces skills to rescue her. The book may well have wide appeal; it is certainly long and detailed; but I personally have less taste for this genre.
One of Gruber's trademarks is to give his characters back-stories of amazing complexity; all of them are highly unusual people, but their unusualness itself becomes something of a cliché. Here, I'm afraid, he comes close to parodying himself. Sonia, it is revealed quite early on, grew up in a circus and trained as a magician. Penniless when she met her husband, she is barely accepted by his rich family, and eventually escapes, disguising herself as a boy (complete with prosthetic manhood) and entering the forbidden city of Mecca, later writing a book about her experiences. Later still, she studies to be a Jungian psychologist in Zurich, gaining skills which she will use in holding off and confusing her captors. While barely out of his childhood, her son Theo established a reputation as a boy warrior among Pashtun tribesmen, and now serves in a US army unit so secret that it does not even have a name. And Gruber is not exactly subtle with his exposition. There is one sequence when Theo takes a woman home after a fine dinner. "So spit it out, Buster!" she says. "You were born in Pakistan. And then what?" So Theo tells her for thirteen densely written pages, with the result that "She seemed to have been aroused by my story, and I felt myself riding on her excitement, drowning the guilt."
For all the obviousness of his narrative machinery, there are things that Gruber does extremely well. Sonia, for example, confounds her captors with a deeper knowledge of Islamic law and practice than they have themselves. It is clear that the author has done much research, and all his major characters really know what they are talking about. Those who read only for the action may find that this slows the pace unbearably. But for many readers, this depth of understanding may be the entire point.
on May 30, 2010
Some of you may already know Michael Gruber's unusual history as a writer. His first cousin, Robert K. Tanenbaum, asked him to ghost-write a legal thriller based on Tanenbaum's experiences as a prosecuting attorney. They split the royalties, but Tanenbaum was listed as sole author and got all the credit except for a fulsome acknowledgement ("All praise is due Michael Gruber...") at the beginning of each book. Their first book "No Lesser Plea" was so successful that "they" followed it with 13 or 14 more of the now famous Butch Karp/Marlene Ciampi exploits. As a part of their arrangement, Gruber was not to reveal his role as ghost-writer. Eventually Gruber apparently tired of not being able to answer such innocent inquiries as "And what do you do?" and started to spill the beans. When Tanenbaum found out, he fired his cousin, hired a new, much inferior ghost-writer, and Gruber began his career as a novelist in his own right and with his own name on the cover.
Gruber should thank his cousin for firing him as it pushed him to further reveal a talent that I regard as genius. In the legal thrillers, Gruber had demonstated a remarkable ability to understand and get inside sub-cultures, in this case the sub-cultures of the New York District Attorney's Office and various criminal networks. In his own novels he has expanded this talent to portray credibly everything from Cuban Santeria cults to Siberian tribal groups. In "The Good Son" this unique talent is on conspicuous display as we are invited inside the various cultures of Pashtun, Punjabi, CIA, jihadi, and a few other groups. It is truly an amazing tour de force. I know of no other writer who could pull this off.
As other reviewers have mentioned, the novel has three intertwined stories, each with an eloborate back story: Sonia who is kidnapped by jihadis along with her peace-seeking group; Theo, her son, who mounts a rogue operation to free her; and Cynthia, the CIA operative that gets wind of Theo's plan. Each of the three stories is fascinating in itself, but the connection among the three doesn't always come off perfectly. All we really get to see of Theo's elaborate plot is Theo's heroic actions and Cynthia being harshly sidelined. If the rest of the hostages are also rescued, it happens off stage. Also, the denoument or after-story is anticlimactic. We see Theo's work as an employee of his uncle but learn very little about what happens to Sonia. There is a hint when Theo meets Cynthia at the end but not more.
Despite these shortcomings, I have to say I loved the book. Anytime I can learn some history, sociology, politics, and cultural anthropology along with a gripping thriller, I feel like I have gotten my money's worth and then some. I echo Robert K. Tanenbaum's acknowledgement: All praise is due to Michael Gruber.
on April 6, 2010
Michael Gruber's `The Good Son' begins with an early morning phone call, mother to adult son (who just happens to be sharing the bed of his paramour). An uncomfortable situation for most mothers/sons, but typical of the relationship between Sonia Laghari, a peripatetic Jungian analyst, and her soldier son Theo. Sonia is off to the wilds of Pakistan where she has assembled an international peace conference. And where she and the eight conferees will be kidnapped and held for ransom by terrorists. And of course Theo, a member of one of the many fictional undocumented American military squads, will set out to save her.
While this may appear to be the usual no-brainer thriller, it isn't. Instead, Gruber has written a highly effective and complex novel. Sonia and Theo are but two of the well developed and credible characters Gruber portrays. These are people with complex and fascinating histories that he sparingly teases the reader with until the final chapter.
The various plot threads are handled with skill. Sonia, isolated with her fellow hostages in a Pakistani village, offers her skills as dream interpreter to her captors. In return she is assigned the task of deciding the order in which they will be beheaded. But just who is Sonia? Her history is murky at best.
Theo meanwhile is determined to rescue his mother with the unknowing aid of the American military. His convoluted plot to rescue Sonia provides the second major plot thread.
But it's Gruber's Pakistan and Pakistani's that truly bring the novel to life. Pakistan is far more than the setting of the novel: in many ways, it is the novel. It is gritty and imperfect and glorious, and, for most American readers, a place we haven't really understood.
Five Stars: How good is Michael Gruber's `The Good Son'? As good as it gets.
on October 12, 2014
Michael Gruber is one of my favorite authors in that he combines the violent, seedy and high class of life,the spiritual evils that exist and the spiritual goodness of life in his wonderful books to give us hope for the future.
I decided to read The Good Son because I wanted to understand more of what makes some of the Muslim people in life hate us and why their God, Allah sends them on murderous Jihads. Well, I believe my questions have been answered. But, I have also come to understand that every ethnic group has its violent evil side, and that includes Christianity and my own country, because someone evil will always find a way to use religion and government in evil ways.
The Good Son is about a mixed race and religion family, practicing modern Islam and Christianity. One would think from what one hears today that such a mixture would not work. But really, the differences are not that great, just how the evil ones on both sides practice their evil or their goodness.
The heroine in this story is multi-spiritual and practices whatever fits the circumstance,and quite effectively and honestly.
I fully recommend this book to anyone who wishes to come to a better understanding of cultural and religious differences and who might share my own conclusion that it's not how you practice your religion or what religion you practice, it's how you listen to God who speaks to us all through that still, small voice.
The Good Son is a different kind of international spy thriller - intelligent, thoughtful, with a complex plot and interesting well developed characters. There are actually three intertwined story lines that come together at the end of the book. Theo Bailey is a US army Special Forces fighter who has been wounded in Afghanistan by friendly fire. He is the son of a Pashtu father and a Polish American mother. He was raised as a Pashtu and while still quite young participated in the jihad against the Russians. As a teenager he is taken to the US and becomes an American citizen. While recuperating from his wounds his mother is captured by terrorists in Afghanistan. He develops plans to free her from the terrorists. In a separate thread we are told his mother's story. Sonia is a former circus performer who has married a wealthy Pakistani and is also a trained Jungian psychologist. Her two daughters are murdered by terrorists in the 1980s. She is kidnapped while leading a peace conference in Afghanistan. In the third thread we meet Cynthia Lam, an analyst at the National Security Agency charged with monitoring intercepts from South Asia. The events surrounding the attempts to release Sonia and the other hostages bring together the stories of Theo, Sonia and Cynthia.
I know I have not distilled this plot well in my description but the first half of the book where the characters are introduced is a really good read. The detail that the author provides relating to the Afghani and Pakistani culture enriches this story. Descriptions of the food, the family and clan life and the different sects of the Muslin religion were educational and enjoyable to read. The author makes a real effort to illustrate the differences between Western culture and the Muslin tradition. For this most part this works.
As I write this review I can see how wild this plot seems but let me tell you it worked for me right up until the last few chapters. The author was so skilled and the story presentation so strong that I was sure the ending would life up to my expectations. Sadly not true. So many implausible things happen in the last 50 pages I was stunned. Not only were the events contrived, major characters acted totally out of character.
So, I still recommend this book despite the end. It has a ripped from the headlines feel, strong characterizations, complex plotting and a unique look at the Muslin jihad.
on November 20, 2013
This is one of the three best books I have ever read.
Michael Gruber has grafted a political/religious/sociological/psychological study on the classic thriller drama. Unlike most thrillers where I rush to the improbable ending, knowing the stoic but isolated hero will find a way to ride off into the sunset (while the reader knows that the sun will rise with the next volume) with the beautiful and understanding woman who will somehow nurse him back to physical and psychological health so he can save the world from the next evil opportunist, this book is about much more than the usual improbable thriller plot.
In The Good Son: A Novel, Gruber uses the plot as a scaffold for psychological, religious and sociological asides which are far more intriguing and thought provoking than most op ed pieces or news stories about the Middle East.
The Good Son: A Novel is really about how holding a mirror to the different ways Americans and Afghanis live their lives. According to Gruber’s Jungian analyst protagonist, Sonia, the mother of the daring military operative, Theo, Americans believe in progress, money, sex, fame and military strength with a national philosophy based on pragmatism, while Muslims, specifically Afghani tribal Muslims, instead strive to fit in, to achieve harmony and satisfaction as a member of a family or a tribe, all the while believing in God and sincerely trying to do what God wants.
The novel is really about the juxtaposition of these two methods of dealing with life, and the conflicts those frameworks cause in Sonia’s family, in her and Theo’s heads, and between America, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the people who live in all three countries.
Reading about those conflicts gives us the page turning thrill of most adventures, but the asides are as informational as a high level graduate seminar in psychology, sociology and religion. This is really a thriller that makes you think, and, I don’t think I have ever said this before about an “airplane book,” is worth reading again, not for the plot, but to think about the characters’ musings on life, religion, family and society.
Through those musings I learned more and gained far more insight and understanding about the conflict between the West and the Muslim world than I ever gained from reading hard news and "serious" books and magazines.
Imagine if John LeCarre met James Frazer (the author of the Golden Bough) and decided to work together to entertain and enlighten. I can not overemphasize how much I loved this book. It is entertaining and educational. If not for the prejudice against popular fiction, I would be unable to understand how this book has not won every award. I don’t share that prejudice and that’s why I put Important in the title of this review. Gruber’s fiction can teach us more than many volumes of serious work or scholarly tomes. Read it! And Enjoy it.
on July 8, 2011
I stumbled on Michael Gruber by accident, when I found "The Book of Air and Shadows" at a going-out-of-business bookstore. It took me a while to get into it, but I was ultimately thrilled to find a new writer to follow. I bought every Michael Gruber book I could find. Other reviewers have noted that "The Good Son" departs from the style of Gruber's other novels. I disagree. While obviously a different and wholly contemporary story, it is structurally and thematically similar: separate narrators with separate stories that eventually merge, themes of mothers and sons and duty, religion as almost another character.
Other reviewers have summarized the plot, to the extent that a complex plot can be summarized. Unlike "Air and Shadows" and "Forgery of Venus" there's no 16th-17th century narrator--it's all 21st century vernacular. Unlike the Jimmy Paz novels, there's no occult or magic, unless you count Jungian dream interpretation.
I loved the strangeness of the characters: orphan circus performer turned therapist/peace promoter; Pakistani-born U.S. Army special ops warrior; foster son and brother turned warlord/terrorist. All in addition to the other roles revealed as the story unwinds. I love Gruber's allusions to both popular and classical culture. I thought the story was well-crafted and the book a great read. I think this novel defies genre: it's about espionage but not overtly a "spy" novel, it's thrilling but not really a thriller, there's a lot to figure out but it doesn't read like a mystery.
"The Good Son" is not a book to skim. Gruber's novels demand your attention. My usual complaint about books is that they go by too quickly. All of Gruber's books have demanded to be savored. "The Good Son" follows in that tradition. It's one of the best books I've read in some time.
If you're looking for something smart, contemporary, and a bit demanding, I recommend this novel. I think it's not a "beach" book; "The Good Son" is great fun but is not fluff. You'll want to pay attention and it's worth the time. It's not one of those summer reads that you can't remember ten minutes after you put it down. It sticks with you.
on April 28, 2013
Take a look at the back cover of the book written by Michael Gruber. It tells you the plot line of the book. Dr Sonia Laghari and a group of others are abducted by a group of extremists while there are on the way to a conference to discuss peace in one of the trouble regions of the world. She is an historian whose previous works has shocked and wounded the followers of Islam, not because of what is in the book but how because of how she manged to get the material for her book. As a result there is a death sentence on her. This worries her son Theo a military personnel who uses his contacts to get his mother to safety. While Theo is working to get his mother freed, Sonia is psychologically engaging her captors in dialogues questioning their understanding of the holy book.
I was hooked as soon as I read the back cover. The back cover promises drama in various flavors, political relevance in the form of US policies and religious interpretation in the form of dialogues between Sonia and her captors. That is in fact a lot of things in one tiny small book. How does one manage to cram all these into a book? Luckily, this is not a tough task for Michael Gruber. He manages to put all these ingredients together and also succeeds to keep us glued to the book. In order to build the drama, the story is told from the point of view of the three people; Sonia the abducted, Theo the rescuer and the third a person whose role who is very ambiguous initially. This style helps in building suspense. Sonia's narrative takes precedence as she is help captive and also uses her psychology background not only to stay alive but also to influence the captors. This is where the book gets interesting.
Both Sonia and Theo guards secrets from their respective lives. When the novel opens up, the reader has no clue about their past. When the story unfolds, Michael Gruber carefully reveals their secrets little by little all the while making it clear there are more to come. This is an interesting technique and is used with the sole purpose of keeping us engrossed in the book. If you analyze some of elements of the book further, the facts are very hard to digest for an intelligent mind. This is where I advise the reader suspend their disbelief and enjoy the twists. After all this is fiction. It necessarily do not have reflect the reality!
This is a good read if you are looking for an escapist fare.
on September 21, 2013
Michael Gruber is just a fantastic writer! This is the fifth of his books that I have read. The first, The Witch's Boy, was a fantasy tale. The next 3 were his Jimmy Paz detective stories. This one is an espionage thriller. But they are all EXCELLENT!!!
They all have great characters, clearly drawn, unusual, yet utterly believable. They all have fascinating and active plots, that unfold with surprising but always convincing developments and side plots.
This book has several wonderful, powerful female characters, along with several wonderful powerful male characters, all of which present different cultural worlds. The different cultures meet, collide, interplay, and mess with the realities of the main characters in an absolutely fascinating tale.
The sophisticated and convincing portrait of the middle east that emerges from the book is terrifying and convincing. It is engrossing to read on many levels.