Customer Reviews: Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search (Movie Tie-In)
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on March 2, 2014
As a person who was interviewed for this book and who appears as a "character" in it, I believe this book should be categorized as fiction. The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, written by Martin Sixsmith, was originally published in 2009. After the success of the movie Philomena, the book was reissued with a new title. By now, everyone knows that the book tells the tragic story of Philomena Lee, who had an illegitimate child in the early 1950s while living at an abbey run by nuns in Ireland. An American couple adopted her son, Anthony Lee, when he was 3 years old and renamed him Michael Hess. Philomena and Michael were stymied in their search to find each other by the nuns' refusal to give them information before Michael's death from AIDS.

About 7 years ago, Michael's partner (called Pete in the book) referred me to a journalist who was trying to pitch a book based on the story of Michael's birth mother's search for her son. Following Pete's lead, I agreed to speak to Martin Sixsmith about my friendship with Michael. He recorded our 2-hour conversation. Pete expected to hear from Sixsmith if the book proposal ever came to fruition.

When the book appeared without prior notice to Pete or me in 2009, I was appalled to find that Sixsmith had written a fictional version of Michael's life in which characters engage in conversations that never happened. Because the book received consistently bad reviews in the British newspapers, I decided not to write a review, hoping that the book would fade from view. That is exactly what happened until Steve Coogan read the 2009 newspaper article by Sixsmith and the rest is history.

I cringed when I read my "character" engaging in fictional dialogue with Michael. Things only went downhill from there. The dialogue that Sixsmith invented for the conversations Michael and I supposedly had were not quotes from the interview I gave, and I did not agree to my interview being turned into scenes with made-up dialogue. Michael is dead and cannot verify these conversations or, for that matter, any of the conversations he is purported to have had throughout the book.

Inaccuracies abound. I met Michael when he hired me to work for him in December of 1977. The book has me engaging in fictional conversations during 1975 and 1976 with Michael about his boyfriend Mark, and even having conversations with Mark about Michael's supposedly dark moods and behavior. I think the author created these events to support his premise that Michael was a troubled and tortured soul because he could not find his birth mother and because he was required to hide his sexuality at his place of work. This was the 1980s and there were very few gay men or woman who were "out" at work.

The fiction continues. I did not discuss politics with Michael during this time period and never talked about supporting Carter. Also, Sixsmith has Michael moving in with me to "recover" from too much partying. Not true. The many purported conversations in which I provide advice to Michael about his love life or work problems simply did not occur. Like most good friends, I did a lot of listening and nodding.

It is really difficult for those of us who knew Michael to see him portrayed so poorly. He was smart, charming, good looking and thoughtful. Michael always went out of his way to make his friends' birthdays special. For 10 years, he took my young daughter and me to many, many Christmas tree lots in search of the perfect tree.

Michael was a great boss and mentor who taught me so much about legal research and writing and encouraged me to take on difficult and challenging assignments. He was a terrific writer and speaker. These talents and a lot of hard work contributed to his successful career.

Pete and other friends have tried to correct Sixsmith's depiction of Michael as a tortured soul in recent articles that appeared in The New York Times and Politico. They stress his long-term relationship with Pete and his multifaceted interests, which ranged from following Notre Dame sports to predicting the best new Broadway musicals to his prodigious gardening.

Between the made-up dialogue and almost prurient focus on Michael's sexual behavior, the author has failed to present anything near a recognizable picture of Michael Hess. While I can only speak definitively to the information that I gave Sixsmith and my knowledge of Michael, the book contains other conversations that can't possibly be sourced because the people are dead. If you plan to read the book, be aware that you will be reading fiction and, not very well written fiction, at that.
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on December 31, 2013
I really enjoyed the movie version with Judi Dench and Steven Coogan and was a little surprised when a one-star reviewer claimed how inferior the Martin Sixmith (played in the movie by Coogan) book is to the movie. I want to take issue with that assessment. The movie—which is wonderfully done—is only a slice of the whole. The movie is focused upon Philomena Lee with very little about the son she lost to an American family whereas the book is much more about the one, Anthony, who becomes Michael Hess.

The evilness of Archbishop McQuaid in Ireland is not part of the movie. So reading this book has given me a much broader view of what happened, of just how truly horrific this archbishop was and how terrible the Catholic Church was as an institution dealing with unwed mothers and their babies. The Irish government quite literally allowed for the selling of these babies and never allowing the mothers to have their own children. The church treated these young women as though they were Hester Prynne—marked for life as sinners.

The book is primarily about the two children who are adopted by Doc and Marge Hess who have three biological sons. Marge has a brother who becomes a bishop, a very kind man, a real counterbalance to the evil McQuaid. The reader is given a chronological look at the life of Michael within this family, within the American Catholic church, with a lot of dialogue which, of course, has to have been created by Sixsmith. We don’t really know too much about his sources. But I read the book the same way I would read a novel.

In the movie we know little about Michael’s motivation to see his biological mother whereas in the book a lot is made of his efforts. In fact as I read the book I thought this: there should be two movies: “Philomena” and a second titled “Michael.” We experience his struggles with his homosexuality in an era when coming out was often dangerous. We experience him as a high schooler who loved singing and performing in musicals. And as an excellent student at Notre Dame and then as a law student at George Washington University. And then his struggles as a closeted Republican during the Reagan years when he was so involved in Washington politics.
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on December 5, 2013
I saw the film on Thanksgiving evening and was captivated by the story so I rushed home and ordered the book. I've given it three stars only because it was interesting, but the film is better. The film tells the story from Philomena's viewpoint while the book tells the story from Anthony/Michael's side of things. There is very little of Philomena's story in the book and that was disappointing. The factual/historical details of the HIV/AIDS outbreak and the government's lack of timely reaction to such a medical crisis was informative, but I would save my money and just see the film instead for a heartwarming story with exceptional acting by Judy Dench.
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on December 4, 2013
Don't expect the book to be like the movie. It isn't, not by a long shot, but it is just as terrific on its own merits.

While "Philomena" the movie is a tremendous dramatized and fictionalized account of the tragic story of Philomena Lee, who was coerced by nuns into giving up her toddler for adoption in America, the book focuses mostly on the life of her son, Anthony (renamed Michael by his adoptive parents.)

Sixsmith is a scholar and political journalist, and in his hands, the story of Michael Hess (as he was known most of his life) carries much more substance than might be expected from a human interest story of this kind. The question that hangs over the book is "Why would a gay man spend his life furthering the power of the Republican Party, which was (at the time) deeply homophobic and indifferent to the suffering of AIDS victims?"

Sixsmith shows us how the riddle of Michael Hess's life leads back to the rural convent in Ireland where he was born, and to the evil that frightened people commit. There is nothing like the satisfying showdown we see in the movie, but the book is nonetheless a detailed, sympathetic, and thought-provoking meditation on human failure.

A few reviewers have found the detail tough going, and I think your reaction to it may depend on your expectations going in, and what you normally like to read. For what it's worth, I didn't find it a hard read--Sixsmith writes very well, and is clearly trying to make this story engaging to the broadest possible audience.
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on December 26, 2013
After seeing the movie i immediately purchased the book. This is one of the few days the movie is better than the book. I feel the book should have been titled Michael. Most of the book is about his life as an adult and dealing with his job and being gay.
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on February 23, 2014
I bought this book thinking it centered on Philomena's search for her son, and perhaps some analysis of the treatment of unwed mothers in Ireland post-war. This book is mainly about the son and how messed up he was- the inference being that it was due to his treatment at the hands of the nuns. It reads like a novel and I suspect most of it is surmise. How could the author know people's thoughts, especially if they are now deceased? He even describes conversations in the confessional. No footnotes or references, and very sketchy explanation of sources. Very disappointed.
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on March 10, 2014
This book is a disgrace to the dignity of both Philomena and her son. The character development is cheap and void of depth. 1/16 non-fiction, the rest fictionalized, and the absolute biggest lie is the jacket cover. The man sitting next to her is not her son, and it depicts a "search" that never even happened. Yet, the author is outraged at the lies and cheating done to Philomena. The story does not focus on Philomena's search for her son but her son's adult life in the US. It includes a continuous rant on the Catholic Church that is cliché; bitchy-knuckle-wrapping nuns included. Revisionist history does not take into account how society degraded and shamed unmarried women making the entire experience traumatic and heart wrenching. At least the nuns made a safe place for young mothers and their babies. No one else willingly came to their rescue. Mistakes were made all around, but even Philomena said she could not have provided for her son or given him the life he was able to eventually live. Still, lessons are not learned. Our “modern” society continues to shame women for having children, for not having children, for keeping children, for adopting children out, for aborting children, for not aborting children. Women are shamed if they are sexual or if they are chaste. Since the beginning of time, religion or no religion, one way or another, women’s sexuality has always been suspect and subject to control. Martin Sixsmith - go to confession with the rest of us sinners.
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on January 28, 2014
If you are reading this because of the film - don't. Hollywood does it again and although the basic start and end maybe the same the way the content is put it is not. For a great deal of the book it feels like a trip through the gay bars of the United States.
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on February 12, 2014
As an 82-year-old grandmother, who missed the movie due to continuously bad winter weather, I thought I'd read the book instead. Well, it was principally a story of the sexual peccadillos of a high government official, who died of AIDS. I'm told the movie is different. I hope so.
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on February 15, 2014
Not even close to what I expected. Minimal story about a 'search' Just a story of a gay guy. Don't care that he was gay, it just wasn't about a 'mother's 50 year search for her son'.
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