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A Stranger on the Planet Paperback – January 10, 2012
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.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Top customer reviews
losing interest in the main character as the story progressed, always a bad sign. But entertaining and funny enough for 2 stars.
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. Although Schwartz's novel is a crackling good read, his eponymous story within the story is a big letdown. This is Seth's prize-winning bildungsroman, also a fictionalized memoir, yet it was actually stilted, amateurish, and ungainly. I was not convinced that any luminaries from the scholarly university would praise it. It shrank the triumph of the book for me and squandered some of its essence.
In retrospect, I am able to regain much of that lost essence, as it was a wild ride with many moving, primordial events and memorably rich characters. The love of Seth's life, Rachel, is a compendium of touching cross-purposes and levity, and his relationship with Sarah has that Jewish brother-sister realism (that I can relate to!). The dynamics between Seth and Ruth were the most captivating of all, a Freudian roller coaster of a ride.
Although I assigned four stars to Schwartz's debut novel, I highly recommend it for lovers of Jewish familial stories and turbo comic humor. It is a swift read--two or three sittings, and never dull. There is also a very intriguing dissection on the craft of writing, woven into the story organically. Schwartz is an author on the rise, and a few missteps are forgivable.
Seth has a hard time connecting to his father who remarried a snobish French woman and seemed to live very well in the Boston area. Seth's father always complained that he never had money to do anything because he had to send money to help support Seth and his siblings. His father can never seem to hold any meaningful conversation with Seth unless it is a science discussion.
Seth has an odd relationship with his mother and the reader is never really sure if it is because how she seems to make bad choices and go after bad men. Seamus rebels against his upbringing and turns to Orthodox Judism and his main thing seems to be criticizing Seth and complaining about non-Kosher foods.
Throughout the book Seth seems to have only two real friends; Rachel, his lesbian girlfriend and his sister Sarah. It is Rachel who Seth seems to really love and maybe it is because he can't really have her the way he wants. Rachel helps give him ideas to write a short story called A Stranger On the Planet. Rachel gets very angry that Seth used her most emotional moment of her life to include in the story, though the characters and names are different. This story turns out to be the best thing Seth ever wrote and the author includes it on the last pages of the book.
Throughout the book, Seth keeps searching for ways to improve his relationships with his mother, father and Rachel. His other relationships are total failures especially one with Molly who he was married to for a short time. This book would definately be a good college read because the class could discuss all Seth's different relationships and why they are and why Seth is so determined to change them, ignoring other important things in his life.
I liked most of the book but I kept wanting to slap Seth across the face and shake some sense into him about things that appear obvious.