The premise of Thrity Umrigar’s new novel, “Everybody’s Son,” is straightforward: a wealthy white family whose son has died adopts a black child from the projects. Through this disturbing yet evocative tale, Umrigar — best known for her books “The Space Between Us” and “The World We Found” — offers a troubling look at race and the conflicting desires of two families.
At the center of the story is Anton Vesper, a little boy whose mother, Juanita, is addicted to crack. She left Anton alone in a hot basement for days before he broke out and is rescued by the local police. Shortly thereafter, Anton meets a judge named David Coleman who happens to be struggling with the loss of his own child. In Anton, Coleman sees a charismatic child. He decides to bring Anton home, almost as a consolation prize for his grieving wife, Delores.
As Anton grows up with the Colemans in the 1990s, he becomes accustomed to privilege, and is encouraged to strive for an excellence he achieves. He is Harvard-educated and fast-tracked into politics. Over the course of his life, the whereabouts of his mother remain elusive.
But the bond between mother and son is stronger than Coleman anticipates: Years later Anton returns home to search for a mother he can’t find. Though Coleman proves to be a loving and responsible parent to Anton, he has Juanita imprisoned, and he perpetrates a deception with far-reaching consequences. He convinces Juanita that Anton will have a richer life in his world, a life that Anton wants. He also explains to Anton that his mother willingly gave him up, knowing herself incapable of raising him. The golden-skinned, amber-eyed boy is a commodity to Coleman: a son swapped for a son, and Coleman feels few moral qualms about the impact on Juanita.
The toll these lies take is devastating. Juanita loses a child she loves; Anton is stripped of his black identity. His friends and girlfriends are mainly white, and throughout his experience in the Colemans’s world, he is isolated from his blackness, so much so that his one black girlfriend, Carine, calls him the “whitest black man” she’s ever met.
Though Coleman is treated sympathetically throughout the novel, he is shadowed by his corrupt morality. There is no eluding it: Coleman destroyed a woman’s life by taking her child and using his wealth, power and whiteness against her. He has also robbed a child of his heritage, raising difficult questions for readers to ponder:
Would Coleman have wanted Anton if he were a dark-skinned black child, if he hadn’t been able to blend so effortlessly into his world? We later learn that Anton is bi-racial, perhaps explaining this. Would a black mother view blackness as a curse that a white man’s wealth and status could provide compensation for?
In thescenes between Anton and his politically astute girlfriend, Carine, the treatment of race is problematic. Anton seems strangely detached from the reality of pervasive anti-blackness. Carine’s attempts to educate Anton result in a break between them, though she is later willing to mentor Anton on his black identity — mothering him with the freedom Juanita was denied.
On the other hand, the reality that Umrigar constructs for Juanita suggests the author appreciates how inescapable systemic racism is, though the consequences of Coleman’s actions are disposed of too neatly. No matter what Anton achieves, he can’t insulate himself from his blackness. Whether on Georgia’s rural roads where he is stopped by police, or in the heart of major urban centers, or within the judicial system, he is never immune from that reality — or what it means in America. The tender, final scenes of the book describe a man beginning to come to terms with who he is.
Ausma Zehanat Khan is the author, most recently, of the novel “Among the Ruins.”
By Thrity Umrigar
Harper. 335 pp. $26.99