Book Review, Contemporary, Fiction

A Family of Strangers – Not a Pretty Review

If what you’re interested in is a story about forgiveness, perhaps you might like “A Family of Strangers”, by Casey Bell.

Reading the blurb, I had high hopes for this book. I actually liked the main idea – forgiveness. Though taken to extremes, I still found it meaningful, trying to send a good message. The intent was admirable, the execution, sadly, not so much.

Trigger warning here – it’s important to state the book talks about rape. I won’t disclose more, as I don’t want to give spoilers away, but if this is a trigger to you, you should certainly avoid it.

Bobby Sampson is a 10 year old, rejected by every foster care family he’s been to in his short life. When he finally finds a good adoptive parent in the form of William Osei, initially his social worker, his real family shows up as well. They are not the best.

Sarah Sampson has an intriguing story about how she was tricked into giving Bobby up for adoption by her ex-husband. She had been searching for him ever since. She wants to get back in his life as soon as possible and is willing to accept any conditions William might impose. His real father, Sean, on the other hand, is currently in jail. They all agree Bobby is too small to understand Sarah is his real mother, as well as the entire “Sean situation”, so decide to wait to tell him everything until his sixteenth birthday.

Of course, nothing goes as planned.

While the premise might be good, this book was terrible for me because of the way it was written. I won’t go into spelling or grammar mistakes. My native language isn’t English. I definitely have tons of problems of my own and I still spotted quite a few here. They were the least of the problems and they are easy to fix. The true problem, for me, is the writing itself.

First of all, dialogues can be really complicated to navigate as a writer. I recognize that. Dialogues in this book, however, are extremely detailed and completely unnecessarily so. They should advance the plot. They should be rather short and exclude small talk completely. In real life, of course, you greet, exchange pleasantries, but in books, it is more natural to skip everything about this part. No one needs it. It’s completely pointless and makes the book longer without adding anything of value to it. Reading “A Family of Strangers”, all I could think about was…”Skip to the important part of the dialogue already!”

Moreover, in this book, dialogue is king. There are no descriptions. No setting scenes. No details of how the characters look or feel. It really felt a lot more like a play than a novel. Still, that wouldn’t have been so bad, if the dialogue were meaningful, but it is mostly “hello, hi, thank you, how are you, let me get you some tea, which tea would you prefer, oh, here you go, good bye”. Cut all these things and the book is instantly cut in half.

Another issue I have with these dialogues is how unnatural they seem because of their cues – “William responds”, “Bobby speaks” etc. I’ll insert a quote so that my point can be clear:

William’s door to his house opens and William, Bobby, Richard, Carla, and Ritchie enter the room. Richard
“Goodness, Bobby, you keep this up you might be the youngest pro baseball player in the world.”
William responds,
“He did play a good game today. You made the parents of the other team mad.”
Bobby speaks,
“Dad may Ritchie and I go upstairs and play my new game?”
William answers,
“If his parents say its okay, it’s okay with me.”
Clara responds,
“Just for a little while; it’s late.”
Ritchie responds,
“Thank you, William, thank you, mom.”
Bobby follows,
“Thank you Mrs. Clara, thank you, dad.”
Bobby and Ritchie run upstairs, William responds,
“Walk, please.”

A Family of Strangers, by Casey Bell

Given the dialogues and the lack of descriptions, characters don’t really have an opportunity to shine. They feel underdeveloped, with the little we know about them stated directly. There is a reason the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so used for writing – it’s because it works. It’s what novels need to make us empathize with characters. It was not the case here.

Characters lack depth. They feel like caricatures, we know little about. There is even a character, William Osei’s mother, who appears one time just to say “hi” in a pointless dialogue and never shows up again. Why bring someone in a story if she doesn’t help the plot in any way, only to then completely abandon her without even a mention?

All in all, this story felt a lot like a moralistic, yet feel-good, tale from the Bible. It actually called upon faith, as well as our lack of right to judge, as reasons to forgive – fully, completely, wholeheartedly.

Though I rationally understand and even like the message, I didn’t feel it as believable because the characters didn’t really work to put it in place. To forgive someone should take a toll. It should be emotional and, as a reader, I want to see the process. I want to see the scars and how they heal. It should be messy. That is if you want to get the message across. The way this book puts it is: you go through a trauma, you get over it and just forgive your abuser. Simple, easy, painless. There is no way I can connect emotionally to a thing like that. And of course, in the end, in my opinion, if there is no emotion, there is no message.

Do I recommend this book? Sure, as long as you know what to expect: a good message of forgiveness and tons of (in my opinion, bad) dialogue, as well as weak plot and characters. Though I had a lot of issues with the way it was written, there are currently multiple great reviews on the book as well. Perhaps the best idea is to check out quotes and see how much this is a bother for you personally.

Disclaimer: I got a free copy of this book in exchange of an honest review. That has not swayed my opinion at all.

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