~ All You Need Is Love, help, education, communication, money, humility & hair tips ~
When I like something, I often can't tell you why. Most of my favorite books are still waiting for the reviews I can't get right in my head; so here's what I noticed about this book:
I expected it to be more hard-hitting in the areas of cross-cultural or cross-racial adoption, but it is subtle throughout. Even when making hard-hitting points, the touch is light. I also expected more stupid white people, to be honest, but all of the characters come with their own unique strengths and weaknesses, blind spots and positive traits. Nobody is a hero, everyone is a real person. The characterizations are mostly believable and treated with dignity.
Rumaan Alam wisely steers around lots of potential pitfalls by setting this novel between 1985 and 1999, when the world really was a different place in many ways. At times the irony is so heavy it left drops on my table, but it's never sarcastic or mean-spirited. The characters are all learning and growing, and nobody gets off easily when dealing with race, family, class, gender, background or other issues... Almost more than race and class, what I read here was a uniquely American book. I can't remember being as optimistic as the people in this book, but it's impossible to regain ignorance in a post-everything world. These characters still have the Twin Towers (and even eat at Windows on the World,) haven't seen a full-on war in decades, and truly believe things are getting better. So beyond the obvious issues of race and class that get most of the ink in reviews, there is also a careful and poignant exploration of what it means to be American now that we know what these characters have yet to experience.
I couldn't help wondering what would happen in just a few years, when it all started to crumble for this family - I'd love to have followed them all through so many more points in history, and while it wasn't a cliff-hanger, I'd like to see the next decades covered by the adopted son if I got to make wishes into books.
Finally, Alam does another good job of writing from a woman's perspective including the way sometimes nobody "gets" a friendship from the outside, even other people who are close to one of the friends, even when it seems like the friendship can't possibly be "real." He must've done a lot of research since he covers everything from birth and breastfeeding to clothing styles from the era. After seeing some women respond angrily about a man writing "women's thoughts," my reaction was "well, I'm not a mom, never gave birth, never breastfed - would *I* be allowed to write this book?" This "who gets to write what" thing bothers me in many ways and is personal in many ways to me. Maybe I'm overly sensitive, but Rumaan Alam is the son of Bangladeshi immigrants, married to a white man with whom he's raising two adopted black sons in Brooklyn.
When it comes down to it, families are more than blood or the way others perceive us. Love will not heal everything, but it also doesn't harm anything. Parenting is hard for everyone from time to time. It's probably very wise - whether you've adopted a baby or born your own - to allow others to offer wisdom and insight (on more than the basics.) Knowing what you don't know might save your family. And it will certainly save your kid's hair!