Like Caitlin_D noted when she reviewed Philomena last year, the book should really have been called Michael Hess, as Philomena only has about 10% of the work devoted to her. Still, it’s easy to see how Steve Coogan changed his focus when adapting the book for his movie, and the publisher’s decided to cash in on that by rereleasing the book (which was originally titled, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search)
In Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee’s family forced her into a convent to have her illegitimate. Like hundreds or thousands of other women in the same circumstances, Philomena had her baby, worked off her “debt” to the convent for 3 years while raising her baby, and then was forced to sign a piece of paper giving the Church the right to sell him to a family looking to adopt. Philomena then returned home, heartbroken and with no way of finding her child.
The majority of the novel focuses on what happens to that child. And overall, it’s pretty interesting. Anthony Lee becomes Michael Hess, adopted by a German family in America (along with a 2-year old girl from the same convent named Mary). Sixsmith researched the hell out of Michael Hess, and we learn all about his upbringing, his college years, his struggles with his identity (both as an adopted child and a mostly-closeted homosexual) and his role as a key player in a political party that he disagrees with on many points. Michael tries several times to find his birth mother, and the issues he struggles with as a result really break your heart.
Philomena reads more like a novel than non-fiction, and Sixsmith admits up front to imagining a lot of Hess’s interactions with others. But even if some of it is fictionalized, it’s still an interesting account of a complicated man. I just wish we could have gotten to know Philomena a bit better, beyond a few introductory chapters and what basically amounts to an endnote.