Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree is something special – and something entirely unexpected too. As a contemporary novel it hits all the right notes, delving deep into teenage life and tackling social issues with sensitivity. But, beyond that, Far From the Tree is a poignant and touching reflection of family, both the one you’re born into and the one you find, and it’s a story that’s beautifully told too.
Grace has grown up as an only child who’s always known she was adopted, but she’s never had much interest in finding her biological family until she gives up her own baby for adoption while she’s still in high school. She soon finds out that she has two biological siblings: a younger sister, Maya, who was also adopted as a baby, and an older brother, Joaquin, who spent his entire life in the foster care system.
As the siblings begin to get to know each other, each of them are struggling with their own problems and insecurities. Maya is brash, loudmouthed and confident, but she’s also spent 15 years feeling like the odd one out in her adopted family, who are battling their own problems. Joaquin has no interest in seeking out the mother who abandoned him to a lifetime of bouncing from house to house and his experiences have left him scared to let people get close, even if they only want the best for him.
And Grace is coping with giving up her baby while feeling more isolated than ever after her old friends and ex-boyfriends distanced themselves from her – a feeling that doesn’t get any easier when her bio siblings’ feelings towards their mother leaves Grace feeling she can’t share her own decision to give her baby up, all while questioning whether she’s chosen the right parents for her child. Little by little, the siblings help each other face their fears and understand their problems, and it soon becomes clear that maybe they found each other at exactly the right moment.
“That’s what family is […] it means that no matter where you go, no matter how far you run, you’re still a part of me and Grace and we’re still a part of you, too! Look at us! It took us fifteen years to find each other, but we still did!”
With a trio of protagonists, it’s inevitable that one character resonates with readers more than the others. For me, that character was Joaquin, and his troubled history and his fear of letting people in was the biggest draw early on. As the novel progressed, though, it was the dynamic between the siblings that powered the book forward, with each character becoming distinct and interesting people in their own right. Fittingly, there’s nuance here, from their awkward, stilted first meetings to their finding similarities in each other and falling into an easy rhythm, with all the annoyances, snark and petty arguments siblings have.
There are some little niggles with this novel, some understandable like the slow pace in the early chapters as we set up characters, settings and relationships, and some a little more frustrating, like watching every character make the same mistakes in different ways and it feeling just a little too repetitive and drawn out when you’re reading it over and over from a different perspective.
But, above all else, this is one emotional read, and one that isn’t afraid to pack a punch – and the many good points of the novel far outweigh the few bad ones. Benway, it seems, has a knack for rendering her characters as realistically as possible and the pain and heartache felt by Grace, Maya and Joaquin is as keenly felt as their joy, their apprehension and their fears.
This is a poignant story, a rewarding reading experience and it’s easy to be swept up in the bio siblings’ journey – so much so that if you don’t wipe away at least a tear or two while you’re reading you’re probably not reading it right.
Far From The Tree is published by Simon & Schuster Children’s on 8 February 2018