Books in the Media Week 1: “Philomena…” by Martin Sixsmith

Philomena: The true story of a mother and the son she had to give awayPhilomena: The true story of a mother and the son she had to give away by Martin Sixsmith

Paperback, Film Tie-In, 452 pages
Published October 10th 2013 by Pan (first published 2009)

My rating: C+

Philomena Film Adaption 

Released 27 November 2013
Directed by Stephen Frears
Starring Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan
My rating: A+

This title might seem familiar to most because it was recently made into a Oscar nominated film starring Dame Judi Dench. The film was a heartwarming yet heart wrenching take on the real life story of Philomena Lee. This film focuses on Philomena’s search for her lost son, aided by the sardonic reporter Martin Sixsmith. 

This was a great, moving, and poignant movie, with excellent performances by both Dame Judi Dench and Steve Coogan. It’s no wonder it was nominated for so many awards. After watching and loving the movie, I went in search for the book it was based on. Interested in this poor woman’s struggle, I wanted to know more. I found a copy of the movie tie-in edition, and purchased it, excited to delve deeper.
The first part of the book did not disappoint. It told the harrowing story of a girl in the care of corrupt institution in 1950s Ireland, forced to give up the child she loved. The film stayed quite true to this part of the story. 
However, the similarities ended around there (and picked back up again in the last few pages of the book).  Although I did rather enjoy the book, I’ve taken a star off my rating due to the egregious misrepresentation of the content in this book. In the movie tie-in edition, the reader is led to believe that the pages therein will contain the story of Philomena Lee. However, more than 95% of the book is about the life of her long lost son, Michael Hess (né Anthony Lee). Although his story was indeed interesting and moving, it was not what I was led to expect. 
Curious about this inconsistency, I looked up the original edition of the book. This brought about an “aha” moment. The original title is not Philomena but the more apt, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee. Clearly in the movie tie-in version, they were looking to draw in the audience, like me, who enjoyed the film. However, the book itself goes significantly more into depth about the life of her son.  Therefore, it is not so much the story of Philomena as it is the fruits of her search. It’s the touching story of Michael’s search for identity, as he struggles to come to terms with his adoption and his sexuality.
I take another star off my rating due to the ambiguity surrounding much of this work of “non-fiction.” It purports to be a true story (and largely it is) but there is a lot of creative liberty taken. Sixsmith clearly uses his imagination when filling in some of the blanks. I would dub this as more a of work of creative non-fiction. Not only so, but, allegedly, one of Sixsmith’s sources complains about the book on Goodreads. This may leave one scratching one’s head.
That being said, I did quite enjoy this story once I got over my confusion. If you enjoy narrative non-fiction and don’t find any of these afore mentioned qualms too troubling, I would recommend you give this book a shot. However, if you don’t think this book is for you, you should definitely at least see the movie. The movie is truly very good (I have watched it more than once!!).
Just for fun, here is the original synopsis for the book (it’s quite a bit more accurate than that of tie-in edition!): 

“When she fell pregnant as a teenager in Ireland in 1952, Philomena Lee was sent to the convent of Roscrea, Co. Limerick, to be looked after as a ‘fallen woman’ and at the age of three her baby was whisked away and ‘sold’ to America for adoption. Coerced into signing a document promising ‘Never to Seek to Know’ what the Church did with him, she never saw him again. She would spend the next fifty years searching for her son, unaware that he spent his life searching for her.

Philomena’s son, renamed Michael Hess, grew up to be a top lawyer and then a Republican politician in the first Bush administration. But he was also gay and in 1980s Washington being out and proud was not an option. He not only had to conceal not only his sexuality, but, eventually, the fact that he had AIDs. With little time left, he returned to Ireland and the convent in which he was born to plead with the nuns to tell him who his mother was, so that he might see her before he died. They refused.

The Lost Child of Philomena Lee is the story of a mother and a son, whose lives were blighted by the forces of hypocrisy on both sides of the Atlantic and of the secrets they were forced to keep. A compelling narrative of human love and loss, Martin Sixsmith’s moving account is both heartbreaking yet ultimately redemptive.”

Happy Reading (and watching)!