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Book Review: Far from the Tree by Robin Benway

Last night I stayed up late, waiting until Nathan’s curfew and finishing the book I was reading, Far from the Tree by Robin Benway. It tells the story of three teenagers: Grace, who has recently given birth to a baby she placed for adoption; Maya, whose parents’ arguments are Far from the treebeginning to escalate as her mom continues to drink too much, and Joaquin, a kid in foster care whose current foster parents have just asked him if they could adopt him. In the weeks following the birth of her daughter, Grace, who is also adopted, decides to look for her birth mom. Who she finds instead are her brother and sister, Joaquin and Maya.

I have a special place in my heart for novels about adoption. I don’t think it’s a topic that authors always get right—sometimes it’s too sweet, sometimes it swings the other way to crazy. But Benway’s story does a fantastic job at telling a truth about adoption that sometimes gets overlooked: it doesn’t automatically create a perfect life with a perfect family and perfect parents who never make mistakes. Families with adopted kids go through the same struggles as those built solely with biological kids, and the characters in this novel illustrate that.

I loved the structure of this novel. The chapters alternate between Grace, Maya, and Joaquin, which works well with the plot. This isn’t (really) a story about an adopted child finding her birth mom; instead, it is about three teenagers learning that family can take many shapes. The characters are each able to learn something important about their parents—in one shape or another, they each learn that adults can and do make mistakes, but those mistakes don’t have to damage or destroy the family. (I feel like this is one of the most important thing that teenagers have to learn: that their parents are people, for good and bad, and then to decide if they can love them anyway.) The way their relationship builds slowly, first between Grace and Maya and then to Joaquin, then outward to their siblings and parents, feels authentic: it’s awkward at first, but also so good at capturing the awkwardness of the beginnings of such a relationship. Aside from sharing a birth mother, who are they to each other? They get to decide and to shape the relationship.

This is one of my favorite young adult novels I’ve read in a while. The thing that pushed it over the top for me, into “I didn’t just like this book but LOVED IT”? The importance of photographs. Each of the characters’ story arcs are influenced by photos in one way or another; for Joaquin especially, photos are a turning point. Sometimes I feel a little bit kooky about how much time I devote to photos and family stories…but books like this one remind me that it’s not kooky. Eventually some photos will be all that is left of us, a way to tell our stories when we’re not here. That matters in all families, no matter their shape.

Highly recommended!


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