Shelf Awareness Book Talk: *The Good Father*, by Noah Hawley

A version of this review was originally published in Shelf Awareness for Readers on April 3, 2012.

book cover of The Good Father by Noah Hawley, via IndieBound
The Good Father: A Novel
Noah Hawley

Doubleday (2012), Hardcover (ISBN 0385535538 / 9780385535533)
Fiction, 320 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: compensated review

Opening lines: ““Thursday night was pizza night in the Allen household. My last appointment of the day was scheduled for eleven a.m., and at three o’clock I would ride the train home to Westport, thumbing through patient charts and returning phone calls. I liked to watch the city recede, the brick buildings of the Bronx falling away on the side of the tracks. Trees sprang up slowly, sunlight bursting forth in triumph, like cheers at the end of a long, oppressive regime. The canyon became a valley. The valley became a field. Riding the train I felt myself expand, as if I had escaped a fate I thought inevitable. It was odd to me, having grown up in New York City, a child of concrete and asphalt. But over the decades I had found the right angles and constant siren blare to be crushing. So ten years earlier I had moved my family to Westport, Connecticut, where we became a suburban family with suburban family hopes and dreams.”

Book description, from the publisher’s website: As the Chief of Rheumatology at Columbia Presbyterian, Dr. Paul Allen’s specialty is diagnosing patients with conflicting symptoms, patients other doctors have given up on. He lives a contented life in Westport with his second wife and their twin sons—hard won after a failed marriage earlier in his career that produced a son named Daniel. In the harrowing opening scene of this provocative and affecting novel, Dr. Allen is home with his family when a televised news report announces that the Democratic candidate for president has been shot at a rally, and Daniel is caught on video as the assassin. 

Daniel Allen has always been a good kid—a decent student, popular—but, as a child of divorce, used to shuttling back and forth between parents, he is also something of a drifter. Which may be why, at the age of nineteen, he quietly drops out of Vassar and begins an aimless journey across the United States, during which he sheds his former skin and eventually even changes his name to Carter Allen Cash.

Told alternately from the point of view of the guilt-ridden, determined father and his meandering, ruminative son, The Good Father is a powerfully emotional page-turner that keeps one guessing until the very end. This is an absorbing and honest novel about the responsibilities—and limitations—of being a parent and our capacity to provide our children with unconditional love in the face of an unthinkable situation.

Comments: A parent’s second-guessing of his or her parenting starts early and can last a lifetime, even when the process seems to be following most of the established norms. Throw in interruptions to the pattern–divorce, for example–and unanticipated outcomes–a child accused of a shocking crime, perhaps–and it’s quite understandable that a parent might be particularly driven to determine where he or she went wrong.

Noah Hawley’s fourth novel, The Good Father, mingles psychodrama and political intrigue in a story that raises questions about the scope of parental responsibility. When an adult child’s life takes a horribly wrong turn, how much is that parent at fault for that? Can a parent have too much blind faith in a child–and can that “blind faith” be just as much a willful blindness to the parent’s own failings?

Dr. Paul Allen’s eldest son, Daniel–the child of his first marriage, which has been over for thirteen years–dropped out of college months ago. Although his phone calls have been infrequent and his whereabouts uncertain ever since, Paul wants to believe he’s doing OK. But when a TV news report shows Daniel being captured by Secret Service agents after a Presidential candidate is shot–and Daniel makes a full confession not long after–it becomes much harder for Paul to continue believing. At the same time, it’s also hard for him to believe that Daniel actually committed this act, and Paul’s intense search for the truth–framed through his medical training as a search for a correct diagnosis–begins to undermine his second family and his own sense of self.

Although Paul’s efforts to comprehend the incomprehensible are what drive the story, the mysteries of The Good Father are psychological rather than plot-driven. In chapters alternating between Paul’s first-person narration and the third-person recounting of Daniel’s journey from college dropout to accused assassin, Hawley roots out emotional truths in a father’s struggle for acceptance and a son’s misdirected search for identity. At the same time, the author’s background in TV crime drama (Bones) contributes to well-paced storytelling that never gets too bogged down in its complex emotional underpinnings.

Rating: 3.75/5

Author Noah Hawley discusses The Good Father in The Huffington Post

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