“There is a girl, and her name is Sam.”
Those are the opening words of "Sam," the first Read With Jenna book of 2023, a tender account of one girl's childhood in Massachusetts.
"'Sam' is about as perfect of a coming-of-age story I have ever read. It explores what happens when one girl loses the wonder of childhood — the innocence of her early years only to reclaim her power and hope," Jenna tells TODAY.com.
She continues, "Although it is a story of one girl, it will take all readers back to their own youth. I fell into this novel and read it in one sitting. Sam is the ideal book for all readers: those of you who read with us every month or those whose resolution it is to read more."
Author Allegra Goodman says the novel's first words came to her while she was writing free-hand, dreaming up her next project. “I think Sam kind of chose me,” Goodman says. “It all sprung from that one little line at the beginning.”
Goodman, who is the author of “The Cookbook Collector,” “Paradise Park,” and “Kaaterskill Falls,” chalks it up to the magic of writing. “A lot of stuff I plan and think about my research but there's some things that just come to you,” she says — and the opening line of the book was one.
The cinematic novel opens on a defining moment in seven-year-old Sam’s life. She takes on a climbing wall at a carnival and reaches the top, surpassing anyone’s expectations of her capabilities. On that rainy day, Sam discovers a lifelong love for climbing.
As she grows up, Sam faces obstacles more difficult to climb than rock wall. She navigates her relationship with her parents, who met as teenagers and split when she was younger — her father is beloved but itinerant, a contrast to her stern and overstretched single mom. There are dreams thwarted by money and her moms’ schedule; adults letting her down in various ways; the woes of schooling without stimulation; first relationships; uncertainty about life direction and the glimmers of hope that come through friendship and unexpected mentors.
“People have said to me, ‘What genre is this? Mystery, suspense, romance?’ And I say, ‘Well, it's a coming-of-age story, so it's all the above. It’s about a girl becoming human. She's turning into a human being. It’s a very simple premise. And it's also sort of the biggest thing that you can write about," Goodman says.
“Sam” is an ode to Goodman's daughter, her youngest child and the family’s only girl.
“My three sons were all kind of quiet. They read a lot. Then there was this little girl — she was so rambunctious. She was literally climbing the walls of our house all the time. She was the kind of kid where you’d turn your back and she would not be there when you looked again. I was sort of like, ‘Oh my God, where did this all come from?’ And I think her spirit definitely inspired Sam,” she says.
Why rock climbing? Goodman's interest was two-fold. After watching her daughter’s love for dancing evolve, Goodman wanted to study how an “activity can change for you as you get older.”
Equally important for Goodman — who has only done some casual rappelling in her life — was to choose a pursuit that she personally wasn’t interested in. “I'm interested in writing a sort coming-of-age story where the character doesn’t become like the author. So many characters turn to writers at the end of the book. I wanted to write about somebody who's quite different from me. She’s a physical being. And that excited me about Sam,” she says.
Goodman says she’s been a writer ever since she can remember, but considers herself an “artist with words.” In this way, she tries to capture Sam’s growing up in scenes that evolve as her understanding of the world does.
“It’s a time lapse of somebody growing up — but instead of a time lapse as you’d see in the film, it’s a time lapse of words. The words of the book change subtly but you can see exactly where it’s happening. It starts off with a childhood voice and you can see change happening through the diction of the story,” she says.
Goodman's daughter has read the novel and approved, but had one note: "She said, 'You took some stuff that I did. I think I deserve some royalties for that.'"