The fraught nature of male friendships is the subject of Daniel Goodwin’s well-structured and hyper-realistic debut novel. Inverting the title of the Turgenev classic Fathers and Sons, Goodwin presents three men – Michael, Eli, and Allan – whose intersecting lives are driven by their relationships with their respective dads.
Eli and Michael are childhood friends; Eli’s father is a famed Canadian poet and Michael’s is a successful professor. Eli and Michael arrive at Montreal’s McGill University in 1983 with their own writerly ambitions. There they meet the charismatic Allan, who has aspirations to follow in the footsteps of his own father, a powerful Canadian politician. Eli’s poetry career gets derailed after his debut chapbook receives a tough review from Michael in the varsity paper; Eli switches gears and becomes Allan’s speechwriter in the latter’s run for student council. The two forge a dynamic partnership, and after graduation they leap into Canadian politics together. Michael, meanwhile, finds success as a journalist. His job forces him to report on Allan’s government after Allan is elected prime minister.
The novel’s main plot involves Michael overhearing Allan’s disparaging comments about Canadians after a BlackBerry is accidentally left on following an interview. But the real force here is Goodwin’s ability to shuffle the first-person perspective among the three men and show how the reputations – and struggles – of their respective fathers drive a lot of their actions. He also creates a believable political reality within the novel: I never once lost my suspension of disbelief regarding Allan’s career trajectory, or the fact that Eli would remain his long-serving speechwriter.
There are a few issues, however. Goodwin spends a disproportionate amount of time on Michael, who consequently feels somewhat better drawn than the other characters. And one truly underdeveloped aspect in this novel about men is, well, its women. The book’s love interest is Sophie, but despite having one chapter told from her perspective, she might as well be an inanimate object the younger versions of Michael and Eli fight over.
Still, Goodwin has pulled off a sharp, clever debut. His prose is strong and his characters memorable. Sons and Fathers is an enjoyable read.