In Son, Lois Lowry returns us to the terrifying, ordered world she had first explored in The Giver, the world where at most fifty infants are allowed to be born and live each year (extras and any babies that “fail to thrive” are euthanized), where everyone is assigned a job, a spouse, and children to raise, where everyone takes daily pills to suppress any form of hormonal attraction. Also, everyone eats the same carefully prepared diet. Delightful place, really. Fortunately, as Son reminds us, this world does have other places. Unfortunately, those other places have their own evils.
As Son begins, Claire, a Birthmother, is undergoing her first pregnancy, in the process answering most of the questions I had from The Giver. Spoiler: I am not happy with the answers.
As it turns out, the Birthmothers learn a little bit about nutrition and a few other things and get massaged a lot, but not much else. They are artificially inseminated, as I thought, and here’s where things get bad: not only are they trapped and bored inside the same dormitory over and over again, and lied to about the process of giving birth (“discomfort,” they are assured, although the girls gossip just enough to realize that isn’t really a precise word for the process), Claire is inseminated at the age of fourteen.
Not surprisingly, the birth does not go well. Claire doesn’t have enough experience to tell us what went wrong, but it’s enough to have her expelled from the birthing program. This makes her feel like a double failure: first, for ending up in the Birthmother program instead of a more honorable profession, and second, for failing even at that. (Each Birthmother is supposed to have three babies.) She is assigned to Fish Hatcheries where she works with fish eggs and sperm. Fun stuff. But she has a problem: she caught a small glimpse of The Product, her son. (The community instructs birthmothers to call their babies “products” as part of the whole emotional detachment thing.) And because she is no longer in the birthmother program, she is not receiving constant messages to stop thinking about him. And so, she can’t.
Fish Hatchery work is not that intellectually demanding or diverting, and eventually, Claire decides to go look for her son. Fortunately she has an acquaintance of sorts over at Nurturing, so she is able to find her baby. He just happens to be that infant that was unable to thrive despite extra care—quite probably because of the circumstances of his birth, as it becomes clear now— Gabriel, from The Giver.
That in turn clues readers of The Giver into the next plot twist: that little Gabriel, instead of being handed over to appropriate parents, is about to vanish because he can’t sleep through the night. (This seems like a normal toddler thing to me, possibly aggravated by the fact that the poor little kid has gone through a traumatic birth, dorm life, nights with a family of sorts who are mostly incapable of real love and then been kicked over to a dorm. No wonder he’s howling.) What’s a lot less predictable is what happens to Claire: after she hears that her son is missing, she panics, apparently falls on a boat, and ends up washing ashore at a new community that has never heard of her old one, or vice versa.
This bit requires quite a bit of handwaving, which Lowry mostly manages by saying, “Amnesia!” That in turn works for part two of the plot, which focuses on Claire’s slow exploration of this new community, which may lack technology and the ability to perform advanced surgeries, but has the ability to see colors and cute little animals and form genuine loving families and also commit adultery, like, um, yay. Part two also focuses on the slow restoration of Claire’s memory and her determination to find her son. It’s compelling. It’s sometimes thrilling. It also ends up making less and less sense the more you think about it.
For example: people can get in and out of this second community in only two ways: a dangerous boat trip on the sea (although, well, boats are going in and out to fish on a regular basis, so, how closed off is this?) or by climbing up a deadly cliff. I can well understand why Claire feels too traumatized to take the boat, but given that she and the text also tell us that she wants, more than anything, to find her son, to the point where she’s willing to spend years physically training her body so she can climb the cliff barehanded and do some very high stakes jumping all without the chance to sleep—TAKE THE BOAT, CLAIRE. Have someone hit you on the head again. And why exactly can’t Einar, the guy who trains her to climb the cliff, join her afterwards? Sure, he can’t climb the cliff himself anymore, but there’s no reason why he can’t get on the boat and make plans to find her.
Not to mention that this raises still more questions about the world of The Giver. The original book presented that community as one that had taken complete control of the environment: eliminating sunshine, cold, animals other than fish, colors and so on. Gathering Blue and The Messenger had already retreated from that somewhat, what with dogs and the hint of other animals. But Son has an entire community that cannot be that far away that still has all kinds of animals and cold and more. Son also tells us that the community of The Giver is one of many communities that remain in contact by boat, so just how has the community of The Giver remained so rigorously controlled, even given the brainwashing? They meet outsiders all the time. Plus they have planes flying around. Also, Son disproves my original guess that the community had managed to breed colorblindness out of the community; it’s a complete brainwashing thing. Once free of the community, Claire can begin to see colors, although it’s a struggle.
Anyway, the main point of Part Two is to emphasize Claire’s healing, and all of the sacrifices she has to make, and also reintroduce that fun guy the Trademaster from The Messenger, conveniently tying together all four books again. The Trademaster, still evil, offers a bargain to Claire, and then the book moves on to part three.
Part three returns us to the village of exiles first mentioned in Gathering Blue and explored in The Messenger. We catch up on a few old characters—Jonas and Kira are now married with small children; the cute little puppy is now a respectable middle-aged dog. Gabriel, for whatever reason, doesn’t live with them, although Jonas is the closest thing he has to a family. Instead, he lives with a group of boys. As they compare the communities they came from, it becomes clear just how out of the ordinary the community in The Giver is, which makes its entire history and background even more suspect, but moving on. Gabriel wants to know about his family and his origins, and once again, the village is facing the evil of the Trademaster.
Like Jonas, Kira and Matty, Gabriel has a gift—aka psychic abilities. In his case, he has the gift of empathy/telepathy, a gift that allows him to enter other people’s minds. (Given some hints in The Giver, this might be a genetic thing. Or it might not.) And that gift is what can help him face and possibly defeat the Trademaster.
Part three returns us to the themes of self-sacrifice, choice, and the importance of love that has marked the entire series. It also brings a certain closure to the series, catching us up, as it does, to various major and minor characters and letting us know what happened to them. But for all that, I find it disjointed and vaguely unsatisfying.
It’s not the “I would do anything for the son I barely know including giving up my health, the love of my life and most of my chances at happiness even though as it turns out this sacrifice does nothing for him, me or our relationship.” That strikes me as realistic: parents make these sorts of sacrifices willingly all the time, and sometimes the sacrifices are worth it, and sometimes they aren’t.
No, I think perhaps the problem is that Claire really never does end her own story; Gabe does that for her. That would be fine in many novels, and it’s certainly the sort of thing that happens in real life. But after three novels where the young characters make their choices and choose to live or not live with the consequences of these stories, it feels wrong to see Claire, who has spent the first two thirds of the book trying to gain control of her own story and her own life, sacrificing happiness and love to do so, surrendering her story to someone else. I can only hope that after the book ends, she finds herself able, somehow, to send a message to Envar, or get on a boat, and manage to create a life with both her husband and her son. But that ending is just in my imagination, so far. And the rest of the ending also leaves me dissatisfied. Readers who want to know what happened will definitely want to read this book, but others may be just as well off stopping sooner.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, near many lakes and boats, but absolutely no cliffs.