What if you had special powers—but only temporarily? The family at the center of What the Family Needed chooses to use their powers for almost selfish reasons. Author Steven Amsterdam draws from the pop culture obsession with superheroes to tell a tale that’s far more down-to-earth and personal. Their powers may only come for a small time, but they way they use them affects their lives, generally for the better.
Each chapter focuses on a different character, chronicling the family over a couple of decades. Some of the chapters are duds—I almost shut the book when I read the dull chapter about the dad who flies, trying to escape his rut of a life. But some of them are highly engaging—young Giordana turns herself invisible and spies on those closest to her (including watching her brother have sex with their cousins’ babysitter). Amsterdam easily captures each character’s voice in his chapters, allowing you to get inside their thoughts. But what really keeps you engaged is trying to uncover what is going on with troubled child Alek (his chapter, the final one, definitely made up for what I disliked about the rest of the novel).
What the Family Needed is ofttimes too earnest to be enjoyable. The characters all want to be such good people. But Amsterdam’s tight, insightful prose makes up for all the forced poignancy. If you’re looking for a short, personal novel, then this one will suffice—especially if you’ve always wanted X-Men-like powers.