Title: The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a 50 Year Search / Philomena
Author: Martin Sixsmith
Genre: Non - Fiction, Biography
Page Numbers/Length: 484 pages
Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Publish Date: 17th October 2013
So what’s it about?
When she became pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to a convent to be looked after as a “fallen woman.” Then the nuns took her baby from her and sold him, like thousands of others, to America for adoption. Fifty years later, Philomena decided to find him. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Philomena’s son was trying to find her. Renamed Michael Hess, he had become a leading lawyer in the first Bush administration, and he struggled to hide secrets that would jeopardize his career in the Republican Party and endanger his quest to find his mother. A gripping exposé told with novelistic intrigue, Philomena pulls back the curtain on the role of the Catholic Church in forced adoptions and on the love between a mother and son who endured a lifelong separation.
(pulled from Goodreads.com)
First things first – I purchased this book on the Kindle (yes damn those Daily Deals) which is the film tie-in edition of Philomena. You may very well recognise the title as the film with Judi Dench and Steve Coogan fronting the cover with a bright yellow background. The film was released last year. What I have titled above is the original book title and the film title. The other details of the book correspond with the Kindle edition which is the version titled, Philomena. For the record Goodreads list the book at the longer title so on my Goodreads account it’s under that, and should you chose to look for it on there you will not get confused. Now let’s get stuck in.
I bought this back in December and it has just sat in my Kindle bookshelf whilst I overlooked it for others. What a terrible move - I loved this book and I’m really surprised that I love this book. The reason I am surprised is because it is a book about a normal person. Let me paint my reading history briefly. I read fiction – I have no interest in real life people. I read fiction, fiction and more fiction. Saying that how awkward is it that that my last book review was also a biography?! ANYWAY, I’m a sucker for the creative mind and I feel, fiction allows for that, much more than biographies. So back to the book in question. It is about Michael Hess, originally named Anthony Lee, who was adopted from Ireland by an American family, who took him to live in America. The wonderful thing that Martin Sixsmith does is make this true life search an amazing narrative. Admittedly I don’t read biographies often so I don’t know if actually they are all like this, but this surpassed my expectations. I feel like Martin brought Michael to life he didn’t just simple dictate the highs and lows of a man life, he gave his readers a living, breathing man that they could really imagine.
The story takes you from Ireland to America. We have a teenager mother in 1952 who is sent away to convent and then forced to give away her child. Originally Michael wasn’t meant to be adopted, it was his best friend, a little girl named Mary, who was being taken away but their bond unbreakable at the mere age of 3 saw that the adoptive family took them both. From then on Michael and Mary are brother and sister and join a family of three boys.
Michael is well behaved throughout his childhood with his new family in comparison to his sister Mary. We soon learn that Michael is struggling to deal with the fact that he has been “sent away.” Michael we learn is very lonely and carries around with him a great amount of guilt. We also learn that he feels completely rejected from his birth mother and it is these thoughts that stay with Michael throughout his life. He is well behaved because he is scared of being sent away again. As Michael gets older we see that the biggest part of Michael’s guilt is that he is gay. His family is religious and Michael himself was also religious too and he thought this sexuality was a sin.
The book takes you through political America and we see Michael carve out a career within law and politics for himself as he rubs shoulders with the President and other political members. At this point Michael has accepted his sexuality but has hidden it from the outside world, including his adoptive family. Michael in the end was a lawyer for the Republican Party who were known for their homophobic views, and so for my Michael admitting he was gay would mean social exclusion. We learn throughout the story that perhaps Republicans are not so homophobic, but I guess it is the face you show to the world that matters the most. It is also at this time that AIDS started to become prominent in America and the gay community and the book delves into how it affected the people Michael knew.
We see Michael fall a bit wayward during the story – he pushes those who love him away from him, delves into a darker side of sex and is promiscuous. Despite this Michael does have long term relationships that are filled with love but we see time and time again how he destroys a relationship with his self doubt. In the end we do see Michael destroy himself and for me I just really understood his struggle.
What is most stunning about this story is the narrative; it is pieced together as if the Sixsmith plucked Michael out of his head. But Sixsmith didn’t, he conducted such wonderful researched and I feel he painted a story that was so very close to Michael’s real life. He painted us the story of a man whose life was dramatically changed by Irish Catholic Laws and the story of a man who never felt he was enough. You will always feel sorry for Michael as he struggles to place his identity and find his footing in the world. Michael tried twice in his life to find his mother and he doesn’t ever get to meet her, what is devastating is how close he came to her. Sadly he never got to know that she was searching for him too. Michael and Philomena’s story is sad but their stories highlight two very important parts of history in Ireland and America.
The only thing I would say is that the book is about Michael. The title of the book seems to suggest otherwise. Philomena has the beginning and the end, but essentially this is a book about the life of her son. There is an overview of how Martin Sixsmith got to write the story because of Philomena’s contact with him, but don’t feel that the book is about her because it talks largely about the life of her son. As for the film – I have no idea; it may very well show a different story, it is titled ‘Philomena’ after all. But for me this story was perfect as is and it truly makes me wonder about the stories we all carry inside of us.
4 out of 5
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