This book left me with mixed feelings; though I found it mostly enjoyable and touching there were two big things that didn’t sit well with me and somewhat soured the reading experience.
One is the blatantly misleading cover and title. I haven’t watched the 2013 film Philomena starring Judi Dench, but I’ve heard enough to expect, as the front cover puts it, “the poignant true story of a mother and the son she had to give away”, or as the back cover puts it, “the touching story of a mother’s fifty-year search for her son”. At first Sixsmith’s book seems to back it up, opening in the 1950s Ireland with the story of Philomena Lee, a young girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock and gets sent to a convent. After giving birth to a baby boy, she is forced to work at the Magdalene laundry to “pay for her sins”, and eventually give up her son for adoption, with no hope of ever contacting him again. A truly tragic story that makes your blood boil.
However once Philomena’s son is adopted by an American couple along with another little girl, she more or less disappears and 95% of the book is instead the story of her son Anthony and his life in the USA with the new name Michael Hess. I assumed that at some point the story would switch back to Philomena, but as I read past the half mark and then three-quarter mark, I began to get grumpy and wonder why the title on the cover wasn’t Michael instead. Apparently this book was first published in 2009 with the name The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which makes a whole lot more sense. To cash in on the success of the film, it then got cynically re-released as Philomena, with Judi Dench and bullshit summary on the cover. Not cool.
My second beef was the writer’s choice to treat the book as a weird mix of non-fiction and historical fiction of sorts, with many imagined dialogues that happened more than 50 years ago. Not even the most scrupulous research can unearth those accurately, which then makes the credibility of the entire book rather questionable. I enjoy non-fiction and historical novels like Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books, but I was split on this uneasy marriage of both.
If you can swallow the false advertising and the creative non-fiction approach, the story of Michael Hess and the devastating effect the separation had on his life is quite moving. Because he was never told the true reasons his birth mother gave him up, Michael grows up with huge abandonment issues and a deeply seated conviction that he doesn’t deserve happiness. A double life as a gay man hiding his sexuality from most people around him undoubtedly added to the strain. Michael’s life takes an unexpected turn when, despite being a Democrat and gay, he ends up going to high places working for the Republican National Committee. The spectre of AIDS and the appalling response of the Reagan administration to the national epidemic does trouble his conscience, but finding belonging within the most powerful organisation in the country means too much to Michael.
The poignant and emotional ending did a lot to smooth over the major problems I had with the book, and now I want to watch the movie for a different perspective on the story (that’s more upfront about being “inspired by”).