The Good Son, by Michael Gruber (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2010).
"Special Operations soldier Theo Bailey is right to be concerned when his mother, a controversial Muslim writer, announces that she will be traveling to Pakistan to attend a symposium on peace. His worst fears are realized when the conference participants are taken hostage by a group of terrorists who resolve to execute the captives one at a time for every new Muslim war casualty. Fortunately, Sonia Bailey Laghari is prepared with a few tricks of her own: an astounding facility with languages, the mysterious insights of Jungian psychotherapy, and an unshakeable, at times brutal, sense of faith. While Theo masterminds a high-stakes military operation to save the hostages, his mother discovers in her gift for dream interpretation a psychological tool of great power and subtlety. For her fellow prisoners -- including an eccentric American billionaire, a Jesuit priest, and a married Quaker activist couple -- Sonia's uncanny influence over the captors is their only hope of survival. But life is not all that's at stake: the mounting tumult of their terrifying adventure leads Sonia and Theo ultimately to face the far-reaching questions of culture, morality, religion, and family."
"The phone rang at a little before one in the morning and I knew it was my mother."
Interesting that it was this book, set largely in Pakistan and full of admittedly fictional insights on the differences between the US and the Muslim world, that I was reading when Osama bin Laden was killed. It was a decent read anyhow, but that coincidence made it seem that much more relevant and real.
That aside, it's nice after my last few efforts to actually read something with characters who are sufficiently complex that I was able to care about what they did and what became of them. The Good Son has its flaws, of course -- who and what doesn't? -- but all in all was an enjoyable, intriguing combination of a political thriller and a meaty family saga. In addition to Theo, the self-described "half-breed" offspring of a U.S.-educated Pakistani lawyer and a Polish-American cum good Muslim wife who seems to care far more for soldiering than for which side he's fighting on, and Sonia, his infinitely resourceful chameleon of a mother, the book also spends a good chunk of time with Cynthia Lam, the ambitious NSA language expert who feels bound to call shenanigans on the intelligence that suggests Islamic jihadists have gotten hold of The Bomb even though she doesn't know whether doing so will send her career skyrocketing or just crashing down in flames. (Hint: It's not the former.) As the novel unfolds, so do the secrets of all three characters' pasts, and the often-circuitous routes that led them up to the present day.
While it seems an odd thing to complain about, I couldn't help noticing that Sonia was almost too strong a character. It's established very early on that she's the novel's moral center, which isn't a bad thing -- but she eventually goes from complex and likable to seeming almost too perfect and unflappable. This may be deliberate on Gruber's part, but her role relative to Theo's is almost like Reese Witherspoon's to Joaquin Phoenix's in Walk the Line: he'd be a perfectly solid if not especially memorable leading man, had she not stolen the show out from under him.
I've gotten pretty picky about endings lately, and this one is better than most. I'm not 100% thrilled about how Sonia's piece of the story wraps up -- I won't spoil it for you, but it just seemed a bit too perfect (Jean Auel's Ayla, anyone) for my tastes. While I didn't love what became of Theo or Cynthia, either, I have to admit that both resolutions make sense given what we'd learned of the characters up until that point. Long story short, The Good Son was certainly one of my favorites of the month, if not the year to date, and was strong enough to make me want to check out other books by Michael Gruber when I have the chance.
- Ithaca, New York
- MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.