Houghton Mifflin: 393 pp., $17.99, ages 12 and up
It’s been 19 years since the publication of Lois Lowry’s pioneering Newbery Medal winner, “The Giver,” which painted a bleak picture of a future society in which color does not exist, love is suppressed and sameness is revered. No one would have guessed that almost two decades later, “dystopian” would be its own genre in the young adult biblioscape, giving rise to blockbuster franchises such as “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “Matched” and now, a follow-up from the author who’s credited with starting it.
“Son” is the Rashomon-style conclusion to “The Giver,” told from the perspective of the young birth mother whose infant was saved in the original book. It’s an intriguing premise that finally resolves the question readers have long pondered: What happened to 13-year-old Jonas and his infant charge, Gabriel, after they fled their well-ordered community? The answer is presented in three sections, or “books,” that read like interlinked individual novellas — each of them taking place in different worlds with characters culled from other titles in what is now a literary quartet that also includes “Messenger” and “Gathering Blue.”
With “Son,” Lowry ambitiously, but not always successfully, weaves together the threads. Book 1 is the flawless story of 12-year-old Claire, a “vessel” who’s been selected for artificial insemination and eventually gives birth to the child first known as Thirty-Six and later, as Gabriel. The action takes place in the same sterile, choice-less community as “The Giver” and is written to perfection by Lowry, who doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to describing a life devoid of human connection and history. Claire’s birth experience helps to explain how Thirty-Six got to be so fussy that he was targeted for “release.” It’s postpartum when Claire comes into contact with the nurturer of the child she was never supposed to meet but nevertheless seeks out in defiance of the rules.
Book 1 of “Son” is a thrilling parallel to “The Giver” that concludes at roughly the same spot, with the imminent release of Thirty-Six. Book 2, unfortunately, loses almost all the momentum Lowry built over the first 128 pages when she shifts the action to an entirely different community with new characters. Even Claire comes across as a different person since she’s afflicted with amnesia and has no memory of how she got to this strange land populated with folksy back-to-the-landers.
Like a post-apocalyptic “Wizard of Oz,” “Son” starts in black and white but shifts to Technicolor with this change of scene, though it’s difficult to immediately make the leap from the society described in Book 1 to this seaside community that took in Claire after a storm hurled her ashore. It’s never explained how she got there or why it took her two years to do so. She’s 16 when she arrives in the agrarian community, and 22 when she leaves. Most of those six years are spent strength-training with stones and running barefoot over mossy rocks, helping Claire prepare an escape from her newfound home once she remembers she has a son to find.
Book 2 is a slow — but ultimately satisfying — build that infuses Claire with feminist attributes common to more modern dystopian heroines. She is mentally tough and physically strong — a seeker of truth and the center of family. But getting Claire back to her family proves difficult.
And that’s when the action takes a strange turn. For Book 3, Lowry relies on magic and the evil Trademaster from “Messenger,” who helps Claire reunite with her son for a terrible price. Book 3 is the most convoluted section of “Son,” taking place in yet another community and melding characters from the previous three books in “The Giver” series into an entirely new environment. Although the last page of “Son” is heartwarming, readers of Book 3 in particular will be all too aware of the plot work required to get there.