Everybody's Son: A Novel
The bestselling, critically acclaimed author of The Space Between Us and The World We Found deftly explores issues of race, class, privilege, and power and asks us to consider uncomfortable moral questions in this probing, ambitious, emotionally wrenching novel of two families—one black, one white.
During a terrible heat wave in 1991—the worst in a decade—ten-year-old Anton has been locked in an apartment in the projects, alone, for seven days, without air conditioning or a fan. With no electricity, the refrigerator and lights do not work. Hot, hungry, and desperate, Anton shatters a window and climbs out. Cutting his leg on the broken glass, he is covered in blood when the police find him.
Juanita, his mother, is discovered in a crack house less than three blocks away, nearly unconscious and half-naked. When she comes to, she repeatedly asks for her baby boy. She never meant to leave Anton—she went out for a quick hit and was headed right back, until her drug dealer raped her and kept her high. Though the bond between mother and son is extremely strong, Anton is placed with child services while Juanita goes to jail.
The Harvard-educated son of a US senator, Judge David Coleman is a scion of northeastern white privilege. Desperate to have a child in the house again after the tragic death of his teenage son, David uses his power and connections to keep his new foster son, Anton, with him and his wife, Delores—actions that will have devastating consequences in the years to come.
Following in his adopted family’s footsteps, Anton, too, rises within the establishment. But when he discovers the truth about his life, his birth mother, and his adopted parents, this man of the law must come to terms with the moral complexities of crimes committed by the people he loves most.
B L U R B S"Umrigar hits us in three places at once: the head, the heart . . . the gut. With clarity of vision, she takes on the story of a neglected black boy . . . [Anton] is a character for our times as we . . . try and build bridges across the racial and economic canyons that divide us."
—David Abrams, author of Fobbit and Brave Deeds
"Everybody's Son probes directly into the tender spots of race and privilege in America . . . With assured prose and deep insight into the human heart, Umrigra explores the moral gray zone of what parents, no matter their race, will do for love."
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You
"[A] taut, exquisitely moving love story about desire . . . forgiveness, and the transcendent bond between a parent and child. Umrigar is a gifted storyteller, and her fiction has a revelatory force on the page."
—Dawn Tripp, author of Georgia
"Everybody's Son is an impressive undertaking that addresses complex issues. Umrigar has crafted an unflinching portrait of the human condition with its flaws and triumphs, creating a safe space for us to find our own truth."
—Credit to come
R E V I E W S:
"A potent examination of race and privilege."
"[Umrigar's] focus has always been on the Indian and Indian American experience, but here she crosses borders to examine tough and timely issues concerning a black family, a white family, and our children today."
The Washington Post [read...]
The premise of Thrity Umrigar’s new novel, “Everybody’s Son,” is straightforward: a wealthy white family whose son has died adopts a black child from the projects. Through this disturbing yet evocative tale, Umrigar — best known for her books “The Space Between Us” and “The World We Found” — offers a troubling look at race and the conflicting desires of two families.
At the center of the story is Anton Vesper, a little boy whose mother, Juanita, is addicted to crack. She left Anton alone in a hot basement for days before he broke out and is rescued by the local police. Shortly thereafter, Anton meets a judge named David Coleman who happens to be struggling with the loss of his own child. In Anton, Coleman sees a charismatic child. He decides to bring Anton home, almost as a consolation prize for his grieving wife, Delores.
As Anton grows up with the Colemans in the 1990s, he becomes accustomed to privilege, and is encouraged to strive for an excellence he achieves. He is Harvard-educated and fast-tracked into politics. Over the course of his life, the whereabouts of his mother remain elusive.
But the bond between mother and son is stronger than Coleman anticipates: Years later Anton returns home to search for a mother he can’t find. Though Coleman proves to be a loving and responsible parent to Anton, he has Juanita imprisoned, and he perpetrates a deception with far-reaching consequences. He convinces Juanita that Anton will have a richer life in his world, a life that Anton wants. He also explains to Anton that his mother willingly gave him up, knowing herself incapable of raising him. The golden-skinned, amber-eyed boy is a commodity to Coleman: a son swapped for a son, and Coleman feels few moral qualms about the impact on Juanita.
The toll these lies take is devastating. Juanita loses a child she loves; Anton is stripped of his black identity. His friends and girlfriends are mainly white, and throughout his experience in the Colemans’s world, he is isolated from his blackness, so much so that his one black girlfriend, Carine, calls him the “whitest black man” she’s ever met.
Though Coleman is treated sympathetically throughout the novel, he is shadowed by his corrupt morality. There is no eluding it: Coleman destroyed a woman’s life by taking her child and using his wealth, power and whiteness against her. He has also robbed a child of his heritage, raising difficult questions for readers to ponder:
Would Coleman have wanted Anton if he were a dark-skinned black child, if he hadn’t been able to blend so effortlessly into his world? We later learn that Anton is bi-racial, perhaps explaining this. Would a black mother view blackness as a curse that a white man’s wealth and status could provide compensation for?
In the scenes between Anton and his politically astute girlfriend, Carine, the treatment of race is problematic. Anton seems strangely detached from the reality of pervasive anti-blackness. Carine’s attempts to educate Anton result in a break between them, though she is later willing to mentor Anton on his black identity — mothering him with the freedom Juanita was denied. On the other hand, the reality that Umrigar constructs for Juanita suggests the author appreciates how inescapable systemic racism is, though the consequences of Coleman’s actions are disposed of too neatly. No matter what Anton achieves, he can’t insulate himself from his blackness. Whether on Georgia’s rural roads where he is stopped by police, or in the heart of major urban centers, or within the judicial system, he is never immune from that reality — or what it means in America. The tender, final scenes of the book describe a man beginning to come to terms with who he is.
Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author, most recently, of the novel “Among the Ruins.”
The Boston Globe [read...]
Who has the right to judge what is the best way for a person to grow up? If you are biracial, is it better to be with the mother who loves you but is a struggling crack addict, or would it be more beneficial to live with a wealthy white family who can ensure you get into Harvard? Does privilege make you better? Does being white? Those are the uncomfortable moral questions that propel Thrity Umrigar’s extraordinary new novel, “Everybody’s Son,’’ and there are no easy answers.
Umrigar jump-starts her novel with a prologue that is as incendiary as the heat wave that suffocates the Roosevelt Housing Projects in 1991. Anton, a nine-year-old biracial boy (his father was a white doctor who quickly left the scene), is left locked alone in the apartment for days without a fan or air conditioning, while his addict mom, Juanita, is held prisoner at a crack house.
He finally rescues himself by breaking a window and jumping out into the street, covered in blood. His mom is found, charged with child abandonment, and sent to prison, despite her pleas that she was stopped from leaving. Anton is placed into foster care, and when it doesn’t work out with his foster family, kind-hearted, Judge David Coleman, the powerful son of a senator, and his wife Delores Coleman decide to take him in.
But the Colemans are walking wounded, still grieving the loss of their own son, who died in a car crash, en route to the prom. David, more than Delores, feels that it isn’t just Anton who is being given a fresh start but also himself, having gained the opportunity to father another boy, to bring out the best in him, to love and be loved. Both of them, David believes, can be healed. But that, he knows, takes time, which gives rise to a haunting secret decision with terrible repercussions.
The Colemans give Anton a great education, and every advantage money can buy. He loves his new family more than anything, especially David, but he can’t stop desperately yearning for his mother, until his emotion twists into anger when she doesn’t return for him.
But that’s not the only thing he struggles with. He’s the sole black boy growing up in a white enclave, and it’s almost impossible, at first, for him to fit in. But when he gets to college, he meets Carine, a gorgeous black woman who becomes the love of his life. She continually confronts him about his privilege, labeling him either “the blackest white man I’ve ever met or the whitest black man,” and making him question his sense of his own identity and the roles of race and class in his life.
The writing is clear, nuanced, and gorgeous and never even a word is preachy. But where Umrigar really shines is both at the opening of the book and in its brilliant final pages. It’s impossible not to ache for the young, traumatized Anton, desperate to get back to his beloved mom, even as he grapples with becoming a member of an advantaged white community. The final pages show us Anton as an adult after revelations have just rattled everything he thought he knew about himself and his life, fracturing his notions about what it means to be someone’s son, to belong to others.
“Everybody’s Son’’ is a tragedy in a lot of ways. It eloquently and heartbreakingly homes in on America’s problem with race, entitlement, and class, and uncovers all the compromises we get to make — but only if we are lucky enough to be born in the right neighborhood.
By Caroline Leavitt • June 09, 2017
Thrity Umrigar’s disturbing novel is going to be controversial. And it must be, for it deals head-on with race in America.
The story begins on a stiflingly hot day in 1991, when an African-American boy named Anton Vesper breaks a window to escape his apartment in a housing project. His crack-addicted mother, Juanita, has been gone for days. When Anton finally crawls out of the window, he opens his leg on a shard of glass, and the blood catches the attention of a passing cop.
A wealthy white judge named David Coleman learns of Anton’s plight and agrees to foster the bright, beautiful but undereducated child. David quickly falls in love with Anton; after a while, so does his wife, Delores. They adopt him. Anton comes to love his adoptive parents, too—deeply, genuinely. But the whole setup is so very wrong. It is wrong to the point that David—so loving, supportive and liberal—can be considered nothing less than the novel’s villain.
The fact remains that David stole a child from his mother. He blackmails Juanita and steals Anton the way a slave owner would steal a slave child from his mother. David wanted something and took it.
Fannie Hurst’s groundbreaking 1933 novel Imitation of Life was made into several movies and at least one song by the Supremes, and all of these versions end with the child, who has passed for white, begging forgiveness of their poor black mother who’s died of a broken heart caused by the child’s rejection. In the age of Obama, Anton doesn’t have to pass for white to grow up in privilege and to seek power as an adult. But in Umrigar’s thought-provoking tale, there’s a whole lot of forgiving to be done.
Publishers Weekly [read...]
When nine-year-old Anton first enters foster care, he still believes his mother is coming back for him. However, his new foster father, David Coleman, hopes she stays away for a long time. Since his biological son’s death five years ago, David’s been searching for someone to fill the void in his and his wife’s lives. David never imagined the child they’d take in would be black, but Anton seems to be adjusting well to the world of the rich, white, and privileged. David rationalizes that if he must do something dishonest to keep the boy, it is only because he wants to protect him and give him a better life. With every advantage that money can buy and nepotism can offer, Anton spends the next several decades advancing in society and following in his politician father’s footsteps.
But when the secrets of his past are finally revealed, Anton’s identity is shaken to the core. Jarring and beautiful, Umrigar’s novel examines complex social issues with brutal honesty, but also creates accessible characters with relatable motives, reminding us of the deep-seated racism that exists even in the places we don’t think to look.