James Atwater, a sensitive 17-year-old stranded on the shoals of adolescence, narrates the latest addition to Richard Peck's notable list of titles for young adults. As he tells it, Father Figure is more a situation than a story, since its pivotal dramatic events take place outside the narrator's range of vision. But it is a situation dramatic enough in itself to seize and hold our attention. And, in the end, we admire the restraint with which it is described.
Although told in the vernacular of today, the novel's stark setting and strangled emotional atmosphere give the tale a Victorian quality…. James, already an overanxious father figure,… finds himself more responsible than ever for his poetic younger brother, Byron [after the death of his mother, who had raised the boys after their father's disappearance eight years before]….
What happens is predictable enough…. What is remarkable is that the book does not rely on the usual cliché dramatic episode to induce artificially a reversal in the characters' relationships. There are no sudden storms at sea, fires in the condominium or sharks sighted offshore. Only time—the simple, often tediously slow passing of the days—eventually wears down James' resistance, and it is this reliance on time rather than chance which gives the novel's resolution its ring of truth.
On the other hand, it should be noted that the author's restraint, while sometimes an asset, can also be a liability. His narrator's concerns are too cleaned-up to be truly contemporary and seem instead to reflect the concerns of the author's own adolescence. Although Peck never exploits his situation, he never quite gets inside of it either—never really penetrates his characters' skins to connect with their deeper, more private selves. One sometimes suspects that it is the author's reticence which makes it so hard for his characters to get past their own restraints and into a deeper intimacy with each other.
Winifred Rosen, "Pick a Peck of Pickled Pinkwater," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), November 12, 1978, p. E4.∗