Also by this author: Emmy & Oliver
Published by HarperTeen on October 3rd 2017
Pages: 384 •Goodreads
Being the middle child has its ups and downs.
But for Grace, an only child who was adopted at birth, discovering that she is a middle child is a different ride altogether. After putting her own baby up for adoption, she goes looking for her biological family, including—
Maya, her loudmouthed younger bio sister, who has a lot to say about their newfound family ties. Having grown up the snarky brunette in a house full of chipper redheads, she’s quick to search for traces of herself among these not-quite-strangers. And when her adopted family’s long-buried problems begin to explode to the surface, Maya can’t help but wonder where exactly it is that she belongs.
And Joaquin, their stoic older bio brother, who has no interest in bonding over their shared biological mother. After seventeen years in the foster care system, he’s learned that there are no heroes, and secrets and fears are best kept close to the vest, where they can’t hurt anyone but him.
Robin Benway’s beautiful interweaving story of three very different teenagers connected by blood explores the meaning of family in all its forms—how to find it, how to keep it, and how to love it.
There’s a reason Robin Benway seems to be winning ALL THE AWARDS this fall for Far From the Tree– it’s a brilliant, emotional, evocative novel that takes a simple yet vast question from its dust jacket- “What does it mean to be a family,” and builds such a beautiful and layered world around exploring the answer, or many different answers between siblings Maya, Joaquin, and Grace.
The novel begins with a brilliant parallel foundation of protagonist Grace following the fate of her family pattern and giving birth to her daughter as a teenager. As Grace struggles with the cascade of emotions following the adoption, it sets into motion her desire to discover her own biological family and sets up the story in a cyclical and masterful way. Though Grace’s story becomes very interwoven with her siblings in this character driven novel, Grace was by far my favorite character. Calm and quiet on the surface yet containing an intensity of strength and resilience when tested, it made my heart ache to read Grace’s story of both loss (giving her baby, whom she dubs Peach in her mind, up for adoption) and gain (finding her siblings and learning their love isn’t conditional or judgemental). It was also heart breaking to read about the repercussions and bullying she faced after returning to school after her pregnancy, and without becoming an issue book, the story underscored the biases of how teenage pregnancy is viewed an handled for girls vs. boys.
Grace thought bitterly, boys who get girls pregnant are heroes and girls who get pregnant are sluts.
Grace’s story was so important to the overall structure of the novel and really tied the experience the family had together, and her narrative begins and ends the story on extremely profound notes.
Next is Maya, arguably the most annoying sibling but the one who is the fiercest and most explosive in the way she loves and views the world. While at times I wanted to smack her for being so bratty, Maya’s story is integral in showing that dysfunction can grow and fester in even the most privileged of families or loving of homes. Maya also has the unique experience of having a sister who is her parents’ biological child, conceived after she was adopted, and the tensions and comparisons of Maya and her sister were handled realistically without feeling over the top.
Finally Joaquin rounds out the trio, the sibling with the most tragic backstory- never adopted, lived with his bio mother his first year of life, constantly having to wonder why his mother would give him away and never opt to see him again. Joaquin’s story broke my heart into a million pieces and stitched it back together again. To know you once had a home, a parent, a relationship, and to be given up despite all of that- it makes your chest crack open with the thought of the imagined grief, let alone what it would be like to ACTUALLY experience those things. There’s a vulnerability with Joaquin that I’ve never seen in a male YA character and Benway gets his narrative just right- the perfect mix of grief and suspicion and apathy at being in the foster care system so long.
Benway truly shines in this novel in her ability to create three very distinct narrative voices, yet thread them together in ways that make it believable that Grace, Maya and Joaquin are all related, with their likeness being echoed in their anxieties, the way they handle conflict, and their impulses. I could believe they were family without their narratives sounding the same, and their stories felt so searingly real, personalities fleshed out and laid bare in a way that’s so intimate and hard to do in a stand alone novel where there are less than 400 pages to get to know, bond with, and really care about one protagonist, let alone three.
Benway also manages to give equal weight and importance to the biological families and adoptive families in this book. Both are hugely important to each character’s growth, and there’s acknowledgement from the characters that their adoptive family ties are not diminished or weakened by the knowledge of their biological siblings- they strengthen and adapt to expand their definition of family to integrate both their newly found biological history and the families they’ve called home their entire life. There’s also an honest portrayal of how both biological and adoptive families can be fantastic and terrible in their own way- no one is exempt from human error. There’s also a very strong coming-of-age theme in this book, as each character has to face the reality of their parents (or foster parents) losing the illusion of childhood and becoming real people with mistakes and pasts not that different than their own:
The older she got, the more human her parents seemed, and that was one of the scariest things in the world.