“I write to make sense of the world and to make sense of my own, often contradictory emotions and feelings.” That’s the first thing a visitor to Thrity Umrigar’s web site reads. Never content to rely on tried and true storylines, character types, or easy solutions, each of her novels is a product of that statement. In her latest offering, Everybody’s Son, Umrigar challenges herself more than ever by tackling contemporary hot-button issues such as racism, privilege, and politics plus the universal power of love.
Nine-year-old Anton Vesper—beautiful, bright, biracial—finds himself in the foster care system after having spent a week alone and locked in a stifling apartment waiting for his crack-addicted mother to return. However, his new foster father, David Coleman, a judge with a political pedigree, will do anything to keep the boy and his mother from reuniting, even if it means doing something shrouded in deceit and corruption. He feels it’s his duty and, in the Coleman family, duty outranks justice. After all, he only wants to protect Anton and give him the opportunities his own son, James, would have had. Having lost his teenaged son several years earlier, Coleman and his wife had failed to find anything that could fill that gaping void in their lives.
Anton might be the answer and all of their lives will be better for it. Despite being biracial, Anton assimilates well into the rich, white, and privileged world of the Colemans. With all the advantages that money can buy, Anton easily follows in his father’s footsteps. When his own past and his father’s deeds collide, Anton’s carefully-crafted identity is shattered but he discovers a love he never knew existed.
Anton is a much-loved child who blossoms into an adult. There isn’t a single character who doesn’t, in their own way, feel genuine love for him no matter the circumstances. He alone is the contrast between the scared, under-served child of the projects and the serious, accomplished man he is raised to be in the Coleman family tradition. The result is a novel with layers of unconditional love and hard truths about accessible, imperfect characters drowning in issues larger than themselves.
Umrigar’s storytelling is both complex and simple, unearthing chasms that shield issues and secrets. Her probing pokes holes in the belief that we’re living in a post-racial country. The telling is forthright and not given to embroidery of language or embellishment of emotion —she keeps it honest and above board.
She gives no pass to racism or white privilege and addresses the consequences at all levels of society. She examines each issue carefully and demands answers, even if the solution isn’t always realized within the pages of the book.
One of the most interesting vehicles for exploring racism is Carine, Anton’s African-American girlfriend at Harvard. She is from a fairly well-to-do family, yet she challenges the way Anton was raised, and why he never talks or asks about his birth mother. Following dinner with his parents and grandfather, a retired U.S. senator, a topic of discussion is quickly shut down. Carine boldly counters that in her house, everything is open for debate because her immigrant father believes that’s what it means to be an American. Later, she tells Anton, “I can’t decide if you’re the blackest white man I’ve ever met or the whitest black man.”
In another scene, Anton is stopped by a white policeman simply because he’s a well-dressed black man sitting in an expensive car on the side of a rural road. This is a new experience for Anton, and he has no ready tools for diffusing a potential clash. He knows that this shameful reality exists for other African-American men, and he knows these stops could potentially lead to bloodshed. But this reality had never entered his world before.
Racism’s equally-uninvited sibling, white privilege, is found on nearly every page of this novel. Like its true manifestation, it lingers and lurks when not openly exercised, and even then, it never has to be acknowledged to be awarded. White privilege is a relatively-new topic in open national conversation. With the population of America becoming less white, I wondered if Umrigar had any thoughts about how white privilege could change.
Having lost his teenaged son several years earlier, Coleman and his wife had failed to find anything that could fill that gaping void in their lives. Anton might be the answer, and all of their lives will be better for it.
“I don’t think changing demographics necessarily means there will be less white privilege because privilege is not about numbers, it is about institutional power,” she said in an e-interview. “Look at South Africa—blacks outnumbered whites by large percentages, but the levers of power were always in the hands of the white population.” And so, too, in this novel, the levers of power are firmly in white hands.
Politics is a divisive topic, and when the recent presidential election cycle began in 2015, it’s all many people could talk about. Democracy is messy as a rule, it’s difficult on good days, and all of that is woven into this novel. Could this story have been told as effectively had the Colemans been engaged in some other high-profile profession? “That’s a very interesting question indeed,” said Umrigar. “I don’t think it would have worked in quite the same way if the Colemans were not a political family, for the following reasons: One, from the aspect of plot, I think that the corruption that’s at the heart of this story is facilitated by the fact that David Coleman is a judge and the scion of a political dynasty. I think this makes people eager to help him while also trusting him. Two, I wanted to explore the limits of liberal piety. And having Coleman be a politician made that exploration clean.”
Everybody’s Son is Umrigar’s first that is fully American with no Indian characters. She’s acutely aware of that fact, but it’s also a part of her growth as an accomplished writer. “More and more, I was seeing myself as an American writer and not just as an Indian-American writer,” she said. “And what is more of an American topic than race? But I wasn’t actively casting about for a story. This particular story came to me in a flash. All I had to do, was write it down. Having said this, there’s a great responsibility that comes from weighing in on issues as fraught with symbolism and history as racial relations. In a sense I talk about similar issues in The Weight of Heaven and in The Space Between Us, but I guess I could take some liberties there in that most critics would think of the setting of those novels as ‘my culture,’ despite the fact that I have lived longer in America than India, and indeed have spent my entire adult life in America.”
When I asked her what gave birth to this story, I thought about the 2016 election cycle, the shift in social issue awareness, and the polarization of the country. She was straightforward with her answer: “This book was written a few years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement was ascendant and the Obama era was at the beginning of the end,” she said. “I’m sure those things were swirling around me and within me.”
Everybody’s Son is timely and reflective, uncomfortable at times and completely engaging. Filled with hope and wonder, challenges and obstacles, this is the perfect vehicle for making sense of one’s own world, emotions, and feelings. And what a perfect time for all of us to do just that.
Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association.