Far from the Tree
by Robin Benway
Spoiler Alert: The siblings’ mom has passed away, but they’re able to meet their aunt instead.
Insight Into Far from the Tree
It is exceptionally rare for me to pick up and enjoy a book that is not primarily a romance. Even when I was younger this was true, I lived for the moments between the main couple. Most of the time, I couldn’t care less about the rest of the plot. Which is why Far from the Tree by Robin Benway is held so close to my heart, because it defies all of the odds and is one of my favorite books—despite lacking a serious romance plotline.
Spoiler-y Plot Summary
Far from the Tree follows three siblings: Joaquin, Grace, and Maya. These siblings have never met before. Grace and Maya were adopted to separate families at birth, while Joaquin has moved from foster home to foster home throughout his life. It isn’t until sixteen-year-old Grace gives up her own daughter for adoption that she wants to reconnect and understand her bio mother. Without Peach, as Grace nicknamed her daughter, she felt untethered and felt like she needed something to connect to. Unfortunately, her adoptive parents didn’t know how to connect her to her bio mom, but she instead found her siblings.
Maya, a fifteen-year-old who doesn’t feel like she quite fits in with her adopted family, is the first of her siblings that Grace reaches out to. As Maya’s parents’ marriage becomes more volatile, partially due to her mother’s alcoholism, and she can’t help thinking that when the dust settles, they won’t want her. She knows they love her, but still can’t help thinking that the “unlucky” parent would get her while the other would get her younger sister, their bio daughter, Lauren. The only person Maya can rely on is her girlfriend, Claire, but she even keeps her in the dark about many parts of her life.
When Grace and Maya first meet, they have many bumps, neither knowing quite how to approach the other. And when the conversation of their mother is brought up, Maya quickly shuts it down claiming that she doesn’t want to know the parent who “gave her up.” They do, however, agree to meet up with Joaquin at an arts center where he works.
Joaquin is the oldest of the siblings, approaching eighteen and having never been adopted—credited to him being half-Hispanic and a boy, when many prospective parents prefer girls. Currently, he lives with Mark and Linda, and he has for nearly two years. In that time, he’s also had a serious girlfriend, Birdie, who he broke up with after seeing her family photos and realizing he didn’t have that to offer—a family or past to give her.
Upon meeting his siblings, Joaquin and the girls once again have issues communicating—no one knows quite what to say. Maya and Grace have managed to establish a sort-of relationship but it’s still hard to find a way to get to know everyone. Especially when every sibling has a secret: Grace’s pregnancy, Maya’s mom’s alcoholism, and the reason why Joaquin has been in the foster system so long. By the end of their first meeting, Grace has once again approached the topic of finding their bio mom, but her siblings reiterate that they are uninterested.
After meeting Joaquin, Grace has to return to school for the first time since giving birth to Peach. The school year has already begun, and she’s greeted with insults by her classmates, including from friends of her ex-boyfriend (the father of her daughter). One of these friends, Adam, does something especially cruel and Grace punches him before fleeing to the nearest bathroom. Here she meets a new student who doesn’t know her past, Raphael/Rafe, her soon-to-be friend. This introduction happens on her last day of school.
Meanwhile, Maya’s parents are officially separating, and her dad moves out of the house. Following this announcement, Maya meets up with her newfound siblings and Joaquin admits that his current foster parents have asked to adopt him. However, he hasn’t agreed and later he tells them no.
Due to the stress surrounding Maya because of her dad moving out and her not knowing how to process it, she ends up breaking off her friendship with Claire. Later that night, she and Lauren find their mom on the bathroom floor—with a bloody temple. Presumably, their mom had gotten drunk, slipped, and hit her head before going unconscious.
This led Maya to call Grace for help, showing that their relationship is growing to a point where they can rely on each other. Afterwards, Maya’s mom is sent to rehab.
At this point, Grace and Rafe have developed a companionship—he’s essentially the only friend she has outside of her siblings. She admits to him everything about her daughter, including why she named her Peach in her head, her reluctance to see her because she thinks it won’t be good for her, and the developments with her siblings. At one point, as Rafe is commenting on why she should tell her siblings about Peach and why she wants to meet their mom, Grace corrects him by telling him “bio mom”—that she already has a mom. I think this is important because it’s minute details such as these that show the author’s respect for children and parents in these situations.
Later, in one of their weekly meetups, Grace and her siblings run into one of her old schoolmates—the same one she punched. He incorrectly assumes that Joaquin is her new boyfriend and insinuates to her pregnancy, saying, “have you told him about your big changes last year?” before calling her a slut for having another boyfriend. Which immediately leads to Joaquin threatening him to stay away from his sister or he’d have to deal with him. Of course, violence is never the right answer, but Joaquin’s willingness to stand up for his newfound sister is one of my favorite moments to reread. However, his violence terrifies him, and Joaquin ends up running away before his sisters catch up and he admits to his past.
It ends up that there was a time when he was almost adopted, but it fell through because as it came closer to the papers being signed, he became erratic. He began to have tantrums where he would throw things, in one of these instances he threw a stapler…that accidentally hit a toddler. The dad, in anger, pushed him and he broke his arm. Afterward, his adoption was redacted, and foster parents had to have specific training to take him in. Joaquin has never forgiven himself. After hearing his story, the girls immediately comfort and support him, Joaquin calls them his sisters for the first time.
A few weeks later, at Maya’s house, Grace gets a text from her daughter’s adoptive parents, which Maya assumes to be a boy and playfully attempts to take the phone from Grace so she can talk to “the boy”—only to learn about her niece instead. Grace ends up breaking down as she asks why she should have told them about her daughter and the adoption when they continued to say that their mom “abandoned them,” for doing the same thing. She didn’t want them to think the same of her or to think she was a slut like many others have called her. Afterwards, knowing the full story, Joaquin and Maya agree to help look for their bio mother and, together, they’re able to locate her address.
Prior to meeting up with his sisters to drive to their bio mom’s house, Joaquin has a sorta breakdown in which he smashes the windshield of a car that Linda and Mark had gifted him, leaving him to believe that they would no longer want him. However, he’s able to clean up his act in order to drive to their mom’s address where they meet Jessica—their aunt.
It’s from their aunt that they learn that their bio mom and grandparents have passed away. However, they also learn information about their individual fathers, including that Joaquin was named after his. She also emphasizes how much their mom loved them and how she would have loved to get to know them. Before they leave, Jessica gives Joaquin a key to a safe deposit box that their mother left him. When he later opens them, he finds photos, dozens of them, of him as a baby, his mother and father, and even a few with Grace. Joaquin finally got his family history.
In the end, Linda and Mark forgive Joaquin and he finally calls them mom and dad. He’s adopted later that year, surrounded by all his family. He also reunites with his ex-girlfriend with the hope that they can rekindle what they lost now that he’s found himself. Maya has gone to visit her mom in rehab, which she was previously unready for and has gotten back together with Claire. Finally, Grace has a tentative romance with Rafe and makes the decision to see Peach. She reunites with her daughter in a big hug.
Analysis: Should You Read It?
Overall, Far from the Tree is an extremely heartwarming book and would make nearly anyone cry. The author eloquently describes what it means to be a family and how it can come in so many ways. Her book radiates love and respect for children in the foster system and those who’ve been adopted alike. There are so many moments in this book that I come back to read over and over again because of how they make my heart swell.
Each character is carefully defined, and their sense of self radiates from every page. Their motivations and ways of thinking are incredibly detailed. Benway’s ability to weave each sibling’s storylines into a concise and quick-paced book is beyond impressive, especially with the subject matter. You can so obviously see the connection between the characters growth from page to page. Far from the Tree’s five-star rating is well deserved.
If you enjoy this book, I would suggest picking up An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi. An Emotion of Great Delight is a YA novel that delves into the family dynamics and life of a Muslim teenager following 9/11.