Monday, March 25, 2013

Book Review: "What the Family Needed" by Steven Amsterdam

I don't know about you, but when I was growing up (and sometimes even now as an adult), I dreamed of having superpowers. The desire for those powers—of flight, invisibility, super-speed, x-ray vision, etc.—changed based on the situation I was in at the time, but I felt fairly certain that my life, or at least that moment, would improve significantly if I possessed those skills.

When Steven Amsterdam's What the Family Needed begins, 15-year-old Giordana and her older brother, Ben, are the pawns in their parents' struggling marriage, and one day their mother decides to leave their father and take them to live with her sister's family. Despite the perpetual animosity between her parents, this move is a shock for Giordana, who had planned her entire summer around hanging out with her friends and working at an ice cream store in town. Yet when they arrive, her anger is quickly tempered when her younger cousin, Alek, asks, "Tell me which you want, to be able to fly or to be invisible." She chooses invisibility, and she discovers her ability to will herself so gives her more insight into her parents' relationship and the path her life was headed down, than she'd ever imagined.

In each of the book's related vignettes, which take place over the years, each of the characters suddenly discovers they possess a superpower. Some are truly meaningful—Alek's older brother finds he suddenly has the ability to forge romantic connections between people by simply touching both of them; Giordana's mother, a nurse, finds she suddenly can hear people's thoughts—and others' are somewhat arbitrary, such as Alek's mother, who discovers she can swim with almost superhuman endurance. But all of these characters (mostly) use their powers for good, not evil, and find that the powers changed them in different ways than they imagined.

Although I found some of the stories more compelling and emotionally engaging than others, I really enjoyed this book and the magical world it created. I did wish that Amsterdam did more to resolve each of the characters' stories—while we see all of them years after we've learned of their superpowers, we don't know if these skills were temporarily inherited or permanent, and how they made it to a later point possessing those powers. And I loved the emotion of the final story, which finally gave more insight into Alek, who is somehow at the center of everyone's stories, although its resolution had the potential to negate everything that happened before it.

This is a beautifully written book, almost lyrical at times, and if you have the power to suspend your disbelief, you'll find yourself emotionally engaged in an utterly unique set of stories, which while fantastical, don't require you to like fantasy or science fiction.

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