When Samuel Hill was born, the first thing his dad asked was “what in the Sam Hell?” and from that came his name. He asked this because Sam’s eyes were red, ocular albinism, a rare occurrence, gave him pink irises that set him apart for most of his life, his extraordinary life. In The Extraordinary Life of Sam HellH, Samuel’s father feared that his red eyes him apart, an object of bullying and abuse, but his mother was certain it was because he would be extraordinary because his eyes were a gift from God and everything happens for a reason.

I guess they were both right. He is isolated and bullied in school which is made bearable by his two good friends, Eddie and Mickie. Eddie is an athletic prodigy which wins approval and acceptance to a degree with his classmates, though his blackness makes his welcome mat pretty thin. This gives him compassion for Sam and brings the two of them together. Mickie is a wild child, a free-thinker. They grow up together, these three, and remain friends to the present day. Mickie is even Sam’s partner ophthalmologist.

This is a story of growing up in a Catholic school with a devout and adoring mother, a loving and pragmatic father, and two great friends which are balanced against societal shunning and alienation. Much of the story is about his mother’s faith and his loss of it and whether he can find faith again.

People say really stupid things when they want to comfort other people. Things like “No one’s burden is heavier than they can bear,” a trite idea contradicted by suicide statistics around the globe. The one that irritates me the most is “everything happens for a reason” which is the theme of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Sam’s mother is certain of it from Day One and most of the book is about bringing Sam around to that way of thinking.

So, considering that Dugoni’s point is an idea I find repugnant and cruel, the three stars rating shows what a gifted writer he is. He caught me in the story and I cried in the right moments. I cared about the characters and found the story occasionally amusing, sometimes moving, but also almost always predictable.

The characters are likable though cliched, the hard-working father who shows his love with practical solutions, the strong, religious mother constantly working her rosary. The mean and bullying sister who runs the Catholic school, the kind, compassionate younger sister who teaches, the black athlete who goes pro, the misfit, defiant young girl who acts out. They are not original, but I liked them anyway. Even the mostly absent girlfriend of his adulthood from which he is looking back is a bit of a stereotype, a flight attendant who sleeps around. It all works when I was reading, but thinking about it after I was done reading the book, I was disappointed in how much he wrote to type.

This is a book about a spiritual journey, from faith to doubt to faith again. It’s often funny, often sad, and moves quickly. I am sure people who like inspirational fiction will likely find this a great alternative to the treacle that comprises most of the genre.

I received a copy of The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell from the publisher through NetGalley.