Akin : a novel

by Emma Donoghue

Hardcover, 2019


Checked out
Due Apr 22, 2021



New York, NY : Little, Brown and Co., 2019.


"Noah Selvaggio is a retired chemistry professor and widower living on the Upper West Side, but born in the South of France. He is days away from his first visit back to Nice since he was a child, bringing with him a handful of puzzling photos he's discovered from his mother's wartime years. But he receives a call from social services: Noah is the closest available relative of an eleven-year-old great-nephew he's never met, who urgently needs someone to look after him. Out of a feeling of obligation, Noah agrees to take Michael along on his trip. Much has changed in this famously charming seaside mecca, still haunted by memories of the Nazi occupation. The unlikely duo, suffering from jet lag and culture shock, bicker about everything from steak fries to screen time. But Noah gradually comes to appreciate the boy's truculent wit, and Michael's ease with tech and sharp eye help Noah unearth troubling details about their family's past. Both come to grasp the risks people in all eras have run for their loved ones, and find they are more akin than they knew. Written with all the tenderness and psychological intensity that made Room an international bestseller, Akin is a funny, heart-wrenching tale of an old man and a boy, born two generations apart, who unpick their painful story and start to write a new one together."--provided by publisher.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Noah is unprepared for the social worker's request; to foster his nephew's eleven-year-old son, at least temporarily. He's about to turn eighty, content with his quiet, well-heeled life as a retired academic and planning a trip to the French city he left as a young boy. He and his wife had cut ties with their nephew after he'd stolen from them to support his drug habit, so Noah had never even met his great nephew. But he can't quite brush aside the request, given that Michael's only other option is to be put permanently into the system, where he'll lose all contact with his incarcerated mother. So off they go, a careful elderly man looking for his roots and a unmoored child covering his loss and lack of security with a fierce bravado.

Emma Donoghue takes a few familiar literary tropes (the protagonist looking for his roots, the odd couple, the fish out of water) and approaches them with an unexpected freshness. Every time I thought the novel was falling into a rut, Donoghue surprised me. Noah spends his time in Nice searching for evidence of his mother's years after she'd bundled him alone as a four-year-old to make the long transatlantic voyage to his father in New York, until she joined them after the war. And as he learned both about what happened in Nice during WWII and specifically about his mother, he begins to form a picture of what she was doing in those years. But Noah's research has holes in it, and he's making some big assumptions.

And then there's Michael, a heartbreakingly realistic boy. He's got layers of defense built up and all the habits that seem designed to annoy a cultured old man, from the refusal to eat anything but the familiar to the constant phone time. Donoghue allows Michael to be revealed through Noah's observations and it's beautifully done.

This is a quiet, reflective novel about change, whether utter, life up-ending change or as an adjustment in how a relationship is viewed long after its end. Donoghue manages to inhabit the lives of two characters at opposite ends of their life trajectories and to do so with great empathy. A solid novel that I'll be thinking about for some time to come.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Emma Donoghue's latest novel, Akin, is the third book of hers that I have read. This one explores a relationship between a chemistry professor turning 80 and his great nephew Michael who at 11, has no other next of kin. Noah Selvaggio , the first person narrator, has been a widow for ten years but finally decides to return to Nice, where he was born and to explore several photographs that his mother had left behind regarding her time there during the outbreak of WWII. He considers himself a healthy 80 year old. "Ancient Romans used to distinguish between senectus (still lively) and decrepitus (done for). Sharp as ever, hale, hearty—surely Noah could still count himself in the senectus camp?" When a social worker calls explaining the dire circumstances of this boy,( father dead of drug overdose, mother in prison), Noah decides that he will take the boy with him on his birthday trip. The relationship between the two goes from uncomfortable to endearing with the author doing a nice job of capturing the distracted, phone addicted life of a young boy. (She has one of her own). Gems of dialogue bring out the humor of the novel and the hidden intelligence of the boy. Noah, always the professor tries to correct Michael's grammar: "It’s an, rather than a, when it’s followed by a vowel: an atheist.” “Like, you’re an asshole.” Michael comes from a tough neighborhood, ("It’s a renewal school.” “What does that mean?” “Gotta go an extra hour a day because we’re dumb.”) However it is Michael's skills on the internet that help answer some of the questions about the mysterious past of Noah's mother.
The author nicely brings in the history of Nice and the resistance movement as the two unlikely explorers reconstruct what clues they have. As a reader I enjoyed learning about the Marcel Network that saved over 500 children. Though the novel is somewhat predictable, it is always pleasant. I would recommend.
Some lines:
Rosa Figueroa’s name would always conjure up pressure on the buttocks for Noah. That was how it was, approaching eighty: everything got close to the bone.

Was genius a weed that sprang up anywhere, or did it need a particular habitat?

But really all Noah was attempting to do was fill a gap; throw his ungainly self down so the kid could cross over this abyss. Weren’t all of us bridges for each other, one way or another?

He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not. Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
As in her bestselling novel Room, Donoghue returns to the relationship of an adult and child. Unlike Room, the circumstances are very different. At the age of 79, Noah is a retired Chemistry professor, with a trip planned to Nice, France with a bundle of photographs. His intention is to uncover the mystery of his mother's stay in France during WWII. His plans are soon derailed when he is asked to take temporary guardianship of Michael, an eleven year old great nephew he has never met.

Soon the two are in Nice, and off to a shaky beginning. A life of privilege meets a life that was anything but. A life of crime, drugs, and fearsome neighborhoods. On the surface this is a charming novel, amusing at times, and wondrous as an elderly man who never had children, tries to relate to a young boy who has already endured much. There are hidden depths within, with the unveiling of Noah's mother's life, and her activities during the war.

By books end both man and boy come to different realizations, and this easy flowing story holds more than one surprise. A delightful and meaningful read.

"Don't smash your foot. So many ways Noah couldn't protect this boy; it was like traveling with s bag of bananas he had little chance of delivering unbruised........."

ARC from Edelweiss.

"The future was more urgent than the past, he decided, even if the two were entangled. Like the line he read in the Resistance museum: never have, but never forget."
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LibraryThing member MM_Jones
Akin is a much talked about new book by Emma Donoghue. An eighty year old man is entrusted with the care of a distantly related child on the eve of his "once in a lifetime" trip to Nice, France where he lived as a young child. Unfortunately, I found the premise unbelievable, the child a stereotype and the war history of France pedantic.… (more)
LibraryThing member hubblegal
Noah Selavaggio will soon be turning 80 years old. In celebration of this milestone birthday, he’s making plans to visit Nice where he was born. He’s discovered some old photos taken by his mother that are quite puzzling and he hopes to find some answers in Nice. However, just days before he leaves, he receives a phone call from a social worker asking that he temporarily take care of an 11-year-old boy, Michael, who is his great-nephew. Noah has never met Michael but he’s the closet relative the boy has other than his mother who is in prison and his aunt whom they’re having trouble reaching. Noah well remembers Michael’s father, Vincent, and feels obligated to take Michael along with him to Nice.

This book is on quite a different level than the other Emma Donoghue books that I’ve read. There’s a lot more humor in this one and I enjoyed the witty sparring between this unlikely pair. Michael is very foul-mouthed and can be quite obnoxious but knowing the life he’s led, his character is very believable. I admired the patience Noah shows Michael but then again Noah also knows about loss. He still has long talks with his deceased wife. Both of these characters are brought to life with compassion and understanding. Noah’s mother’s photos lead them on a hunt for the truth that is quite a heart wrenching one and made the book quite compelling. Could it be that Noah’s beloved mother was a Nazi collaborator?


This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
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LibraryThing member DrApple
I really loved this book. The narrator is a 79-year old, recently retired college professor. He is about to turn 80 and is celebrated with a trip to his boyhood home in Nice, France. There's a complication, however, when he is contacted to take guardianship of a 12-year-old bow, the grandson of his late sister. The boy's maternal grandmother has recently died, his mom is in prison, and he has nowhere else to go. The widowed senior can't see any way out, so he takes on this child and takes off to France. This odd couple learn a great deal from one another as they attempt to solve the mystery of some old photographs.… (more)
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Emma Donoghue is a very gifted writer. I've read quite a few of her previous novels and have enjoyed every one of them. All of the previous books have featured a prominent female character but in this book both main characters are male. Very different males to boot. Not being male myself I am not sure how accurate her portrayals are but they seem realistic.

Noah was born in Nice, France just before World War II started. He left Nice when he was 4 years old. Now at age 79 he is going to return to Nice for the first time since he left 75 years ago. Then he gets a call from a social worker that complicates his plans enormously. His great-nephew, Michael, has no other relatives in New York who can take care of him. His father (Noah's nephew) died of a drug overdose a few months ago. His mother is in jail for possession of drugs for the purpose of trafficking. His grandmother with whom Michael was staying while his mother completes her five year sentence just died. There is an uncle but he is in a wheelchair and has no fixed abode since his mother's death. So if Noah doesn't agree to take care of Michael until some relatives outside of the city can be reached the boy will go into foster care. Noah is reluctant for a number of reasons: he and his wife decided never to have children so he has no experience, his age, his upcoming trip, and the fact that he has never even met Michael. Nevertheless he is persuaded to take on temporary guardianship of Michael and take him on the trip to Nice. Things don't look propitious at first. Michael is addicted to playing games on his phone, when he does speak he uses profanity freely, he misses his mother and grandmother fiercely and now he has to hang out with an old geezer that he doesn't even know.

There is a mystery surrounding Noah's mother who stayed on in Nice even after she sent Noah to live with his father in New York City. The only clues Noah has about that time period are a few photos found in his deceased sister's effects. As he and Michael tour around Nice he tries to puzzle out what the pictures mean and what his mother was doing there during the last years of the war. Unexpectedly Michael provides some key observations that help Noah solve this mystery.

I found both characters interesting but I thought that Donoghue really nailed what an octogenarian former chemistry professor would be like. Noah is a great character and I think he might be the best part of this book.
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LibraryThing member janismack
A social worker calls looking for a temporary home for his 11 year old great great nephew that he has never met. He is about to leave for a week long trip to Nice, France when he is talked into taking him along. They were an odd couple but managed to uncover many secrets about their family during the war.
LibraryThing member Hccpsk
In Emma Donoghue’s new book, Akin, Noah Selvaggio finds himself on the brink of eighty and about to return to his birth city of Nice, France to commemorate the event and his retirement from fifty plus years of teaching chemistry. Having outlived his wife, sister and even his nephew, Noah feels quite alone in the world when a call about his grand-nephew changes everything. Donoghue does so many things exceptionally well in this book: the story is tight and compelling, the characters are multidimensional and believable, and the writing remarkable. She manages to capture an old man and a young boy with heartbreaking clarity. Akin is a beautiful little book, and Donoghue’s really at her best clearly writing about a place she knows and loves—the French Riviera.… (more)
LibraryThing member ozzer
The focus of this novel is the relationship between an octogenarian and a young boy. The novel depends far too much on cliches about misunderstandings between the elderly and young people. The two main characters are a little cartoonish. There is also a thin plot revolving around the resistance activities of the old man's mother in Nice during the war. This presents with some surprises, but how the relationship evolves is a little too predictable. This is definitely not as satisfying a read as ROOM was.… (more)
LibraryThing member velopunk
I can't say I was very sympathetic towards Michael. He seemed like an amoral feral child.
LibraryThing member LibraryCin
3.5 stars

Noah is 79-years old and planning a trip to his home country, France – a country he had to leave at 4-years old due to the war. He has a set of photographs his mother took that had been in possession of his sister, who has since passed away, and Noah is hoping to find out more about them. A few days before the trip, he is contacted by social services. He has a great-nephew with no other family they are able to find/contact who needs a temporary guardian, as his father (Noah’s nephew) died, and his mother is in jail. Michael is 11-years old; he and Noah have never met.

It was good. Kept my interest, though it wasn’t terribly fast-moving. I sure did dislike the kid, though.
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LibraryThing member icolford
Akin demonstrates yet again that, when it comes to fictional worlds, Emma Donoghue is at home everywhere. The novel is set in New York and Nice, France. 79-year-old retired academic Noah—widowed, set in his ways, still living in the same apartment where he and his wife Joan (nine years dead) spent their married life and surrounded by mementos of their years together—is preparing to travel to Nice for the first time since he was a child to reconnect with the city of his birth when he receives a phone call. It is a social worker with an unusual request. Her hope is that Noah will assume temporary custodianship of his great-nephew, 11-year-old Michael Young—the offspring of his nephew Victor, also dead, the victim of a drug overdose—until a more permanent arrangement can be found. The boy’s mother, Amber, is in jail. Noah’s reluctance is justified on several counts: he knows nothing about being a parent (he and Joan never had children), he’s old, he’s a couple of days away from getting on a plane to France. But when he learns of the chain of events that led to the request and the unfortunate circumstances of Michael’s young life, he feels a tug of empathy and the weight of familial duty begin to offset his misgivings. With the tortuous bureaucratic details settled, the mismatched pair—virtual strangers to one another—embark on a trip that, for both Noah and Michael, turns out to one of discovery. Donoghue adds interest to the trip by giving Noah a deeper purpose: he is trying to solve the puzzle of his mother’s activities during WWII, his curiosity having been sparked by a parcel of photographs discovered among his late sister’s belongings—cryptic images taken by his mother that are open to interpretation and call into question her role with the French Resistance. The adventure begins in earnest once they get off the plane and hit the streets of Nice, which has changed significantly since Noah’s childhood, but also remains the same in ways that come to seem even more important. Michael tags along as Noah explores, behaving much as we would expect an 11-year-old with discipline and impulse-control issues to behave. Donoghue walks a fine line with this character. Yes, Michael can be obnoxious: he makes unreasonable demands, he is rude, defiant and self-centred, he tests the limits of Noah’s patience, he has his whiny moments. But Donoghue also endows Michael with uncanny powers of observation, a kind of raw intelligence, a generous nature, and an instinct for survival. Over the week in Nice, Noah and Michael get to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, fears and desires. There are plenty of bumps along the way, but the emotional bond that springs up between the two develops gradually, naturally, and convincingly. Donoghue never manipulates her reader, and in Akin, as in her previous books, she expertly sidesteps any hints of sentimentality. The story of Michael and Noah is absorbing because both characters are humanly flawed and trying to navigate a path through difficult, heart-rending situations. In the end, the strength they find within themselves has its origins in the realization that they are better together than they are on their own. Comparisons with Room, her 2010 Booker Prize-shortlisted bestseller, are inevitable, but Akin is so vastly different in every respect that such comparisons are largely pointless. Let it be said however, that it is to Emma Donoghue’s credit that she continues to extend her range and does not try to replicate past triumphs.… (more)
LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
Noah, an elderly man, is returning to the city of his birth, Nice, which he left as a four year old during World War II. His mother remained behind for the war's duration to help her father, a famous photographer. Noah is taking with him a group of mysterious photographs, which he hopes will help him understand his mother's role during the war. At the last minute, circumstances require that he be accompanied by his 11 year old grand-nephew Michael, who he has never met and who has been raised in vastly different circumstances than Noah's life situation. The book explores the developing relationship between Noah and Michael, and is also a bit of a travelogue on Nice. It was an okay read, nothing defective about it, but it did not sparkle or compel me to pick it up, and it definitely will not stick with me like the other book by Donohue I have read, Room.

3 stars
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LibraryThing member jldarden
Really enjoyed this one. The interaction between the old and young in this book seems realistic though the boy seems a bid older than 11. But going through rough patches in life can accelerate things. The suggestion throughout the book that history matters is a good point. The coming out of isolation for the main character seems natural and needed. I recommend this one.… (more)
LibraryThing member elenaj
Wonderful story. Starts slow, but creeps up on you.
LibraryThing member hadden
"Akin" was a good find. An eighty year old man had come to America without his mother, at four years of age, as a refugee from France during WWII. He had become a chemistry teacher with his wife, who had died childless a few years before the book opens. The man is just about to go back to France for the first time, and look up his heritage. However, due to several calamities, his 11 year old grand nephew comes to live with him when his father dies of a drug overdose and his mother is arrested for drugs. The social worker gets an emergency passport for the boy, and off they go to Nice. There isn't much of a story, just these two trying to get along with each other, having never met before taking off to France. The old man's grandfather had been a famous pre-war photographer, and his mother had helped her father. Among her possessions were a few photographs she treasured, but the old man didn't know why. So they tried to identify places in the photographs, and reconstruct their importance. The boy helps surprisingly with his cell phone and new eyes on old problems. But the story is basically the uneasy relationship between the man and the boy, when both are in new circumstances. The descriptions of Nice are wonderful, and makes the reader want to go visit. No violence, no explosions, but some explorations in family memories and history. Was the old man's mother a collaborator with the Nazis? Or a hero? There are some ups and downs, against the background of Carnival parades. If anything, this is a coming of age story about an eighty year old man. A good read, interesting characters, and highly recommended.… (more)
LibraryThing member lilibrarian
Noah Selvaggio, 79 years old and widowed, is about to leave for Nice, France where he was born to celebrate his 80th birthday and research his family. Suddenly becoming guardian to an 11-year-old great nephew was not in his plans.
LibraryThing member LindaLoretz
Donaghue creates a great relationship between an 80-year-old man and an eleven-year-old. I couldn't stop reading.
LibraryThing member ilovemycat1
Enjoyed this book very much and found Noah, the 79 year old "great Uncle" and Michael, the 11 year old thrust into his company and care as two very real and relatable characters. It's a testament to Emma Donoghue's excellent writing. Appreciated the twists and turns of the plot and evolving relationship between the two. The ending, where Noah realizes how much Michael rescues him, particularly resonated. When we give to others, it is us who gain so much in the end.… (more)



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