To a great extent, the dysfunctional family has replaced the traditional family unit. The prevalence of this new family dynamic has created more complications and different styles of relationships, from which unique circumstances often arise. These familial situations create complications that make for excellent stories.
In A Stranger on the Planet by Adam Schwartz, the reader is privy to such a tale. The novel follows main character Seth Shapiro from adolescence to middle age as he struggles with issues from familial relationships as well as with the women who become his lovers at various stages of his life.
The novel starts when Seth is only twelve years old. He and his siblings live with their mother in a cramped New Jersey apartment. They are very poor, and Seth’s mother is overbearing and eccentric. That summer, the children stay with their father in Cape Cod. Their father is now a rich doctor with a new family, cold and unfeeling toward his children, who love him despite the way he has mistreated them and their mother.
And so begins the lifelong struggle for Seth to find happiness through relationships. His parents are extreme cases: polar opposites in personality and in their relationship to their son. Seth never feels comfortable with either one, creating a void that leads to turmoil in Seth’s personal life and influences his relationships as an adult. Each chapter skips several years and the character lives a lifetime between the pages, trying to define himself by the women who share his world. This becomes problematic for Seth in several instances, from a failed marriage to a deep romantic longing for a lesbian friend. Seth’s eccentric family always overshadows his relationships, and his life will be weighed upon by these interweaving associations.
A Stranger on the Planet takes its name from the title of a story Seth writes in college, a story which will play a prominent role in several different time periods of his life, beginning when he first writes it. The narrative influences different characters in the novel and plays a key role in various turning points of Seth’s life. His writing will both help and haunt Seth along his journey– and genuinely touch real-life readers, who get to read the story as part of this actual novel.
Adam Schwartz’s novel has a slightly different structure than most. The chapters remain in chronological order as they chronicle Seth’s life, but there are often flashbacks and flash-forwards. There is always inherent risk of confusing your readers when you write this way, but Schwartz writes clearly; no scene ever seems out of place. The plot moves at exactly the right pace, assuring readers will not lose interest.
The structure also allows for the introduction of several characters, but while most authors fail to provide depth in tales like this, Schwartz does not – instead, each character seems remarkably real. The main character is flawed to the point that readers wonder if there is any hope he will ever succeed in anything, but Schwartz writes his hero well, balancing his sometimes selfish motivations with positive qualities like humor and compassion. This blend makes Seth interesting and will endear him to readers.
A Stranger on the Planet is much more than the typical tale of relatives and lovers. The story explores the complexities of human relationships with a refreshing style and breathes new life into that set of circumstances known as family drama. It is a novel of powerful meaning that shows how a large part of our humanity is defined by our relationships with others.