A Stranger on the Planet, by Adam Schwartz. Publisher: Soho Press (January 25, 2011). Literary fiction. Hardcover, 336 pages.
Just imagine. We’d be the happiest family in the world if no one remembered anything.
In 1969, 12-year-old Seth lives with his insecure and perhaps unstable mother, his twin Sarah and younger brother Seamus. His father has just remarried. This is not a story about a happy family overcoming a divorce and moving on. It centers on Seth’s inherent obsession with his family’s dysfunction. A Stranger on the Planet chronicles 30 years of Seth’s life. Despite lofty goals he remains an underachiever. At 40, Seth finds himself questioning his life trajectory.
A Stranger on the Planet flows with its poignant, comical and highly readable format. The characters are not inherently likable but instead are self-absorbed, petty and insecure. They fight constantly about the most inane things. Seth, Sarah and Seamus have grown apart. The focus on Jewish culture and its place in the Shapiro family proves fascinating. Each child embraces Judaism to varying degrees.
Seamus became an Orthodox Jew and stopped talking to Seth when he married a Catholic woman. Seth and Sarah grow apart as adults but later regain their twin-speak. Despite the negative characterizations of this family, Schwartz’s snappy style makes us keep reading. Seth has a strange, yet credible, relationship with his mother, Ruth. She doesn’t really understand Seth or his goals and passions. Yet Ruth respects and admires him.
I looked out the window so that she couldn’t see the tears that had welled up in my eyes. I thought of my fifteen-year-old manuscript in a box in the back of her closet. She knew my stories and I knew hers, but we kept them stored away, in our hearts and in our closets.
Schwartz delves into the fears and desires for every child, even as an adult: that our parents respect us; accept us and relish our choices and accomplishments. Seth alienates himself from his pretentious doctor father, who has remarried a younger French woman. Yet, throughout his life, he still seeks his father’s approval.
I realized that my father hadn’t paid attention to me until I was well credentialed, but I excused it by rationalizing that he simply wasn’t interested in children, and now that I was on my way to becoming an accomplished adult, he could appreciate and love me as his son.
Seth moves out to Chicago for school which turns out to be a huge deal for him as he greatly admires the writer Saul Bellow and hopes to become a writer himself. Instead he languishes and becomes too afraid to write a single story. He moves to Cambridge later where he’s a stand-up comic and meets Molly, who he’ll marry. Seth also gives up stand-up to teach because Molly thinks it’s a more stable career.
A Stranger on the Planet is so creatively executed and the words carefully chosen to keep the reader completely absorbed in the often abhorrent behavior of this family and despite everything, the reader will grow to like Seth and want to know how Seth fares in the end.