Expectations and acceptance – parents demand the former, children crave the latter. Nathan Nelson, the
only child of two brilliant parents, is himself a bright boy, but he is not the prodigy for which his parents
had hoped. His socially inept physicist father, Samuel, amuses himself with trigonometry, quarks and
Thelonius Monk. His homemaker mother is a gourmet cook and news junkie who leads an exotic travel
group. Their home is different from other people’s, even if only the Nelsons themselves regard it that way.
For instance, instead of a couch, they sit on a divan. Rather than wearing pants, Samuel prefers trousers.
Nathan is resentful of his parents’ fervent hopes for his future - so resentful that he deliberately gives the
wrong answer to the final question at his school’s science quiz just to emphasize that he is not the genius
they are training him to be. To Nathan, geniuses ‘were small-framed men, bespectacled and loping; they
had bad taste in shoes, were prone to gravy stains and tweed.’
For his tenth birthday, Samuel and Nathan fly to California. In his heart, Nathan believes his father is
taking him to Disneyland. Instead, they visit the Stanford Linear Accelerator - Samuel’s idea of fun is to
smash atoms. Taught by Jesuits at a private school, Nathan tries to fit in but usually fails. It is impossible
for him to live up to the expectations that surround him. The only person in Nathan’s life who seems to
openly accept him is his father’s colleague, Whit, a former astronaut and the source of a few comic
moments in the story.
At age 17, Samuel and Whit take Nathan to visit his paternal grandfather, a simple man with simple faith, a
faith he wants Samuel to share and pass down to Nathan. Samuel claims to be an atheist, much to the
disappointment of Pop. On his way home from church with his grandfather, who has opened a few beers in
the car during the drive, an oncoming truck strikes them. Nathan is seriously injured and experiences
momentary clinical death. He is in a coma for several weeks following the accident. His grandfather,
whom he’d seen being ejected from the vehicle upon impact, is killed. When Nathan awakes, it is found
that he had synesthesia – a condition resulting in staggering memory capability and causing him to ‘see’
spoken words in color and form, even smell them. Nathan’s accident has, in Samuel’s eyes, turned his
average son into the genius he’s always wanted.
Nathan is taken to the Brook-Mills Institute for Talent Development where, a bit like a trained monkey, he
is asked to perform tricks based on his enhanced memory. Here he meets an array of savant-like
individuals – Toby, the blind concert pianist; Arlen, the crime-solving psychic; and Teresa, the medical intuitive,
among others. It is Teresa, with whom Nathan falls in love, who discovers a secret that will eventually
redirect and salvage the relationship between Nathan and his father.
Nathan eventually comes to terms with his unique talent. It is with the aid of his accident-induced skills
that Nathan gains an understanding of the complexity of his parents’ relationship with each other and with
him. And it is through this understanding that he is able to finally and fully accept them and love them
This is truly one of the best coming-of-age novels I’ve ever read. I highly recommend it.