A STRANGER ON THE PLANET

Adam Schwartz

In the summer of 1969, Seth Shapiro is twelve years old, and the personal tumult of his and his family’s lives plays out against the backdrop of the moon landing and Woodstock. Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, his twin sister, Sarah, and his younger brother, Seamus, in a two-bedroom apartment in northern New Jersey. His father, a wealthy doctor, lives with his young French wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and often suffocating love for her children, her marriage to a man she’s known for two weeks,

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In the summer of 1969, Seth Shapiro is twelve years old, and the personal tumult of his and his family’s lives plays out against the backdrop of the moon landing and Woodstock. Seth lives with his unstable mother, Ruth, his twin sister, Sarah, and his younger brother, Seamus, in a two-bedroom apartment in northern New Jersey. His father, a wealthy doctor, lives with his young French wife in a ten-room house and has no interest in Seth and his siblings. Seth is dying to escape from his mother’s craziness and often suffocating love for her children, her marriage to a man she’s known for two weeks, and his father’s cold disregard. But over the next four decades, as his quest for happiness and fulfillment takes him from New Jersey to Chicago to Cambridge, Massachusetts, Seth becomes the keeper of his family’s memories and secrets. At the same time, he isolates himself emotionally from all those who love him, especially his mother. But Ruth is also Seth’s muse, and this ultimately enables him to find redemption, for both himself and his family.

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  • Soho Press
  • Hardcover
  • January 2011
  • 304 Pages
  • 9781569478691

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About Adam Schwartz

Adam Schwartz is a senior lecturer in the writing program at Wellesley College. His stories have been widely anthologized, and portions of A Stranger on the Planet have previously been published as stories in the New Yorker. This is his first novel.

Praise

“Funny, honest and obsessive, A Stranger on the Planet is finally as beautiful as it is driven. Charming, too: Adam Schwartz is one part Philip Roth, but with a neurosis all his own.”—Gish Jen, author of Typical American

“A stunningly good book…Utterly charming.”—Don Lee author of Wrack and Ruin

Discussion Questions

“Do you know what your problem is?” Seth’s father says to him.  “You remember everything that’s not important.”  What role does Seth’s memory play in the novel?  Despite his father’s comments, why is Seth’s capacity for remembering “everything that’s unimportant” one of his most valuable and endearing qualities? Near the end of the book, Seth comments, “We’d be the happiest family in the world if no one remembered anything.” But how do the stories and memories of any family define and enrich their lives? What is the role of memory and storytelling in any family’s understanding of itself?

Seth’s brother, Seamus, accuses Seth of acting funny when he’s really sad.  What is the role of humor in a novel with so much sadness? 

Seth is deeply in love with his wife, Molly, but confesses to his sister that he didn’t love her well enough. Why doesn’t Seth do a better job of loving Molly? 

On her deathbed, Ruth says to Seth, “I hope I was a good mother,” and Seth replies, “Yes, of course you were.” Does Seth believe his own words? Is Ruth a good mother? Is Seth a good son? 

Like many children of difficult parents, Seth and Sarah are afraid of becoming like their mother. But how are both Seth and Ruth “Strangers on the Planet”?  

The one male character Seth forms a close relationship with is Raymond, who is blind and gay. Why does Seth befriend Raymond, and why does he react so badly when he realizes that Raymond is gay?  

One of the turning points in the novel is when Seth decides to keep his story from being published. Ten years later, he rereads the story and realizes that it was the most meaningful thing he had accomplished in his life.  Why does Seth feel this way?  What has he forfeited by abandoning his promise as a writer?  What other opportunities has Seth undermined in his life? Why does he act against his own self-interest on so many occasions? Later on in the same chapter, Seth says, “I had always been too cautious to embrace what I wanted; I had always played the odds in life.” How does this quote help explain why Seth never writes another story after “A Stranger on the Planet”? 

In the chapter “Virgins,” Rachel looses her virginity to Seth, but how does Seth loose his “virginity” as a writer? How does this experience change his life?   

What is the relationship between the short story “A Stranger on the Planet” and the novel itself?  Early in the novel, Seth says, “Nothing seemed real to me except the novels I read.” Why is literature such an important medium of self-knowledge for Seth?  

After Seth and Raymond see the movie The Searchers, Raymond comments: “John Wayne isolates himself from love and caring.  But when he discovers Natalie Wood, he realizes his capacity for nurturing and love.  She’s his best half and he finally becomes a whole person.”  How do Raymond’s words also characterize Seth?  Does Seth ever become a whole person?  Does he ever find his best half?