The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: A Novel by Hannah Tinti

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“Love isn’t about keeping promises. It’s about knowing someone better than anyone else. I’m the only one who knows him. I’m the only one who ever will.”

There are beautiful sentences aplenty in this gorgeous novel that I highlighted, but the one above hit me. How can you love someone if you don’t know them inside and out, their tame side and their animal nature. We throw the word love around and don’t mean it, not really. We love people when they are good and easy to love, and what love is more honest and pure than love parents have for their children and children for their parents? Samuel Hawley is a bad man,  or is he a man cornered into poor choices? Certainly the bullet wounds and scars all over his body tell a tale, and his gun toting habits, his raised hunches every day of their life together has to have a hell of a history? No one is this cagey, this watchful for any smell of danger without some rotten past. But Hawley is a father who wants to do right by his now teenage daughter Loo. Loo herself is full of fight and fire, she is different, a born outcast and coming of age as a sort of drifter until her father brings her back to her mother’s hometown has been natural to her. The death of her mother is something she has never been able to truly understand and any digging disturbs her father but with the pictures he carries to set up in shrines in the bathroom wherever they land, with his reluctance to love another woman she knows her parent’s love had to have been grand. Just a baby when her mother died, there are no memories beyond fading snippets of handwriting he has kept on slips of paper and fading old photographs.

Once they arrive back in Olympus, Massachusetts (her mother’s hometown) people who knew her mother, the beautiful Lily, give her bits and pieces  simply in the telling of what she was like. Loo encounters bullying, and her rage brings unwanted attention to both she and her father, but also an unraveling about the truth to her mother’s death and her father’s questionable past that has followed them like a shadow her entire life.

This novel is hard to review because it comes off like a shoot them up story, it is and it isn’t. It is about a father’s love, deep and abiding, for his child and it is also about our natures. Hawley wasn’t born into an easy life, nor did he have many options or support. Loo’s mother, Lily has a seed in her that can’t be confined to a small town and needs to find soil elsewhere. When Lily and Samuel Hawley’s meet in a twist of fate, their love is immediate and doomed, and yet Loo is the real gift of love, the true destiny of her father’s heart.

Every character is beautifully alive, and Loo has her own love story, as much as her violence. She is a tough character that the reader will love, because who hasn’t been on the outside? Who hasn’t been fully unaware of the truth of those we love, alive and dead? Coming of age without the softness of a mother’s guidance, moving around so often that you never develop a bond with your peers because to them you are always a stranger, being smacked with the truth by your deceased mother’s family and friends and trying to understand your place on this planet; our Loo has the whole world on her shoulders. At the center of this madly spinning, confusing existence though, is a father whose love is animal and pure. I could smell and feel everything in this story. I winced, I ached and I burned with curiosity. I read this novel in one night, sleep deprived and smelling blood, fish… it’s very atmospheric.

I am not supposed to be drawn to Hawley, right? But, as we are plunged into his past actions and the love story between Loo’s mother Lily and Samuel (Tinti beautifully places the past in the right spots, never did I feel irritated by going from past to present) a compassion takes root. It’s so easy to judge isn’t it, from a distance many times removed from such struggle, never knowing the terrifying orphaned feeling of being in a world where there is no one to guide,  to shelter, to love you. This is the sort of novel that fires off so many conflicting emotions. Life, life is never black and white- not truly.

This is more than a story about the love between a father and his daughter. It is also about self-exploration, the terrible fight to know who we are as we come of age and how to find our place in the world, because there is no one set path, the truth is- there is no normal family. People do bad things, but are still capable of tremendous love for another. Wonderful! Gushing, I am gushing away. Add this to your New Year reading list for 2017!

Publication Date: March 28, 2017

Random House  Publishing Group

Dial Press

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