Allegra Goodman delivers a portrait of a girl at risk that shimmers with an unusual intimacy and depth ... Tenderhearted ... As Sam grows steadily stronger and better at rock climbing, finding new routes upward where none seemed possible, her inner life shifts as well. In Goodman’s highly skilled hands, this metaphor never feels contrived. An exquisite slice of life bigger than its heroine alone, Sam is reminiscent of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 2014 cinematic portrait of a boy from childhood to early adulthood. That’s a high compliment. If it feels like Sam must live on in the world after the novel is done.
With her sixth novel, Sam, Allegra Goodman set aside the descriptive, lyrical prose style of her prize-winning novels and New Yorker stories to craft a stripped-down, elemental voice out of fidelity to her sturdy young protagonist ... Goodman faithfully creates the perspective of a child doing her best to understand the complicated adult lives around her and to figure out how to satisfy everyone's demands in a way that's reminiscent of Beverly Cleary's classic Ramona Quimby books. None of the nuances of adult dramas are lost on Sam, and Sam's instinct to gravitate toward the activities she enjoys cannot be dampened by rules or obstacles. Goodman conveys the protagonist's emotions so precisely that the reader feels them, too ... Sam is a novel for anyone who's witnessed a kid grow up, felt nostalgic, and yearned to watch the process all over again. Sam captures that unique magic of human development through the story of one steadfast girl.
In Sam Ms. Goodman has turned simplicity itself into a powerful tool for evoking how it feels to be young ... She is particularly good at revealing how adult speech shapes the way young people think about themselves and imagine the contours of their world ... In Sam, the heights our heroine reaches are not so dizzying, but that she ascends at all is a reason to cheer.
Sympathetic ... That achingly sincere voice is the heart and soul of Sam. And anyone who has ever been the focus of a child’s impossibly inflated regard will feel alternately charmed and gutted by Sam’s devotion. Although Goodman writes in the third person, she never strays from the girl’s table-high view, an angle that shrouds adults’ thoughts but illuminates the child’s realm of rules and wonders ... One ventures across these pages like a winter skater lured by fragile beauty onto thin ice ... Goodman has always been a sensitive and illuminating chronicler of ordinary people’s lives ... It sounds churlish to raise reservations about a novel as tender as Sam, but there’s something increasingly restrained about this book that’s out of style with its modern plot. What feels adorable and raw in the early chapters grows merely moody as Sam comes of age ... The story gradually relinquishes its intimacy, its attention to the messy interior of a real young person’s mind. Moments of self-pitying despair fade beautifully into thoughtful realizations, like flowers tossed with faux casualness into a wicker basket for a glossy photo shoot ... If only the author would take as many risks on the page as Sam does on the boulders. This is, after all, a story that involves exploitation, divorce, addiction, death and guilt, but Sam never free solos. We know the novel’s prettiness will always be there to belay this heroine to a gentle landing.
A bit of an oddity ... Goodman’s control of the voice strengthens (although a few errors do crop up), but the straightforwardness-verging-on-flatness of the prose remains ... Sam really does feel like YA masquerading as adult fiction. It lacks the mature reflection, dramatic irony, or eloquence that make the story of a child a novel for grown-ups ... I never felt close to Sam or moved deeply by her predicament and evolution even as I admired Goodman’s empathy, wisdom, and commitment to telling the story of one ostensibly simple but ultimately meaningful life.
She deftly explores fractured family dynamics and jagged questions of class and vocation with a far more focused approach, creating a mesmerizing first person narration in which language and syntax subtly evolve along with the narrator, Sam ... Goodman has forged an intimate, nimble, witty, and transfixing drama of skill and effort, responsibility and freedom.
Stands out among realistic coming-of-age novels about contemporary American girlhood ... Sam is a very appealing character, and so are the friends who sustain her. Sam’s struggles aren’t uncommon, but the way Goodman imbues them with weight and clarity is. We care deeply how Sam’s story turns out, thanks to Goodman’s brilliance and empathy.
Bracing ... Sam’s mostly quotidian travails gain heft through Goodman’s perceptiveness, specificity regarding Sam’s emotions, and arresting turns of phrase ... It’s impressive how much emotional power is packed into this relatively contained story.