Summary and book reviews of Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Bewilderment

A Novel

by Richard Powers

Bewilderment by Richard Powers X
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
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  • Published:
    Sep 2021, 288 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Book Summary

A heartrending new novel from the Pulitzer Prize–winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Overstory.

The astrobiologist Theo Byrne searches for life throughout the cosmos while single-handedly raising his unusual nine-year-old, Robin, following the death of his wife. Robin is a warm, kind boy who spends hours painting elaborate pictures of endangered animals. He's also about to be expelled from third grade for smashing his friend in the face. As his son grows more troubled, Theo hopes to keep him off psychoactive drugs. He learns of an experimental neurofeedback treatment to bolster Robin's emotional control, one that involves training the boy on the recorded patterns of his mother's brain…

With its soaring descriptions of the natural world, its tantalizing vision of life beyond, and its account of a father and son's ferocious love, Bewilderment marks Richard Powers's most intimate and moving novel. At its heart lies the question: How can we tell our children the truth about this beautiful, imperiled planet?

BUT WE MIGHT NEVER FIND THEM? We'd set up the scope on the deck, on a clear autumn night, on the edge of one of the last patches of darkness in the eastern U.S. Darkness this good was hard to come by, and so much darkness in one place lit up the sky. We pointed the tube through a gap in the trees above our rented cabin. Robin pulled his eye from the eyepiece—my sad, singular, newly turning nine-year-old, in trouble with this world.

"Exactly right," I said. "We might never find them."

I always tried to tell him the truth, if I knew it and it wasn't lethal. He knew when I lied, anyway.

But they're all over, right? You guys have proved it.

"Well, not exactly proved."

Maybe they're too far away. Too much empty space or something.

His arms pinwheeled as they did when words defeated him. We were closing in on bedtime, which didn't help. I put my hand on his wild auburn mop. Her color—Aly's.

"And what if we never heard a peep from out there? What...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Powers is in full control of his myriad themes and packs a lot into 200-some pages. When I came to the breathtaking final paragraph of Bewilderment, I felt despondent and overwhelmed. I wasn't sure I could forgive Powers for the ending. But as time has passed, the book's feral beauty has stuck with me, and Robin in particular won't leave my mind. His neurodivergence, viewed as a problem by authority figures in the novel, seems to allow him greater communion with other species, and perhaps even with the dead. The pure sense of wonder that Robin embodies is worth imitating...continued

Full Review (795 words).

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(Reviewed by Rebecca Foster).

Media Reviews

New York Times
Bewilderment is so meek, saccharine and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the mind...equal parts earnest opinion-page essay (humans + nature = yikes) and middling Netflix science fiction product (boy reconnects with dead mother through high tech)...There are some books you want to give to your best friend; this is one to give to your distant aunt, for her reading group. It's a James Taylor song when you require a buzz-saw guitar.

Washington Post
Following 2018's transcendent Pulitzer-winning The Overstory, Bewilderment is a quieter novel that is nonetheless achingly current and wise.

Los Angeles Times
Powers is an essential member of the pantheon of writers who are using fiction to address climate change. Bewilderment shows how tenuous their hopes may be.

Publishers Weekly
[A] marvelous story of experimental neurotherapy and speculations about alien life...The planetary descriptions grow a bit repetitive and don't gain narrative traction, but in the end, Powers transforms the wrenching story into something sublime. Though it's not his masterpiece, it shows the work of a master.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A touching novel that offers a vital message with uncommon sympathy and intelligence.

Booklist (starred review)
Soaring descriptions and forthright observations about our planet...Offers rich commentary on the complex, often mystifying intersections between science, popular culture, and politics...As the best-selling The Overstory continues to reverberate, readers will be excited to turn to another deeply involving Powers novel.

Library Journal (starred review)
Writing with the same remarkable attention to detail found in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Overstory, Powers has created a world and characters that will suck readers in and keep them fixed until the literally bitter end.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Youth Environmental Activism

Young people marching with sign that says Youth for Climate Action NowIn Richard Powers' Bewilderment, nine-year-old Robin Byrne is distressed at the plight of endangered species and commits to painting as many of them as he can, as well as undertaking one-kid protests outside the Wisconsin statehouse and in the nation's capital. He specifically emulates a character called "Inga Alder," who is clearly based on Greta Thunberg.

Thunberg, a Swedish teenager, has been in the public eye since 2018, when she encouraged students around the world to join her on school strikes, walking out of their classrooms on Fridays to draw attention to the urgency of the climate crisis. Millions participated. Since then, she has met with world leaders and made speeches before the U.S. Congress and the United Nations (UN). Her ...

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