The NetGalley summary of Boris Fishman’s Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo goes a little something like this:
Maya was an adventurous Russian exchange student in America when she met the more earnest Alex, who had immigrated earlier with his parents. Their uneasy marriage tames Maya’s dreams of becoming a chef, and forces her to live in suffocating proximity to her overbearing in-laws. Unable to have children, Maya and Alex adopt an American baby. At eight years old, Max’s behaviour becomes odd: he often disappears, talks to animals…
Convinced that the only way to help their feral son is to reconnect with his biological parents, Maya insists that the family drive to his native Montana, to understand the significance of the baby’s mother’s cryptic message.
Here’s why I requested it; I like stories about dysfunctional families, I like weird fictional children and I have a weird obsession with Montana. DLMBDR (I’m sorry, I can’t keep typing out the whole title) delivers in some of these respects; Fishman certainly evokes the excruciating claustrophobia of living with in-laws, and Maya’s are particularly overbearing, in a way that’s two parts painful to one part amusing. Max has some pretty weird habits – sleeping on the floor, eating grass – so he is interesting in the first part of the book, but using the word “feral” to describe him is a significant bit of over-exaggeration. I felt like the summary above gave the impression that the Montana trip would be a major part of the story, which wasn’t the case, and although I enjoyed what I learned about New Jersey, it wasn’t necessarily what I signed up for. I did find the cultural commentary interesting, with the depiction of Maya’s life in Russia and the ways in which that translates to the US.
My main problem with DLMBDR was the pacing; Max’s disappearance in the opening chapters creates urgency which swiftly dissipates and the book becomes a sequence of episodes in which people talk a lot and annoy each other, which might be realistic but isn’t a huge amount of fun to read. A lot of the book is focused on Maya and her increasing levels of unhappiness, which culminate in some very odd actions that make her difficult to relate to, while Alex becomes less and less appealing as the novel goes on.
There were elements of DLMBDR that reminded me of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, in its depiction of an increasingly fragmented family and the central mystery involving a child behaving strangely. Ultimately, the execution here isn’t quite as successful as in Ng’s book, but a reader seeking a family drama with (very) brief references to rodeo will enjoy it.