The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

From teenagers in a high-tech skyscraper to a father who was shot twelve times – my reading choices for the first two books of the year couldn’t be more different! That’s what happens when your book selection relies on the OverDrive app, though, waiting for holds to come in. My second read of 2019 was The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

Goodreads Blurb:

A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

I chose to read this book after hearing about it on NPR. But by the time my hold came in, I had forgotten what the book was about and what I was intrigued by! As I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What is the point of all this? What am I supposed to get out of it? Where is this book going?” At times, the pacing was slow, but then there were moments of extreme action. Even though its plot and purpose meander, I still ended up enjoying this book.

The book follows Loo and her father, Samuel Hawley, as they move to be closer to Loo’s maternal grandmother. Loo has a tough time fitting in at school, partly because her father gets a bad reputation after beating up some fishermen, and partly because there are some real jerks in her class. When Loo is a teenager, she finally realizes that her dad might not be the best guy. She starts to wonder why he has so many guns, why he’s so paranoid, and why they’ve had to pick up and leave so often and so suddenly. In between Loo’s chapters, there is a chapter detailing each of the twelve times Hawley has been shot. These chapters are ridiculous – from a shoot-out in a diner, to a man shooting his own wife, to a near-drowning after a whale almost topples their boat, to accidentally shooting himself – Hawley has had a life like no other. It’s no surprise, then, that Loo doesn’t know how to blend in at school. While Loo and her father struggle to understand each other, their relationship gets tested in a dramatic final chapter called “Everything That’s Happened & Is Happening & Is Going to Happen.”

While many reviews I’ve seen online have expressed displeasure at the amount of violence in the book and the lack of sympathy they felt for the title character, I found it really interesting that I was rooting for Hawley and his daughter in spite of their obvious flaws. It’s true: Hawley has done a lot of bad things in his life. He deserves to go to jail. He never seems remorseful about the terrible things he’s done. Even so, I wanted him to escape, to live, to get away with his crimes! I could easily see this book turned into a movie or HBO miniseries. The alternating flashback chapters, rooting for the underdog, and the author’s descriptions make the novel very cinematic. I was also hooked by the two mysteries that are woven through the novel: how did Loo’s mother, Lily, (Hawley’s one-true-love) die, and is anyone really out to get Hawley? We gather bits and pieces as the book sprawls on, and my predictions kept changing as I read. In all, I’m glad I stuck with this book and gave it a chance, and I’d definitely consider reading another book by Hannah Tinti.

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