The reader meets the eponymous Sam of Allegra Goodman’s novel “SAM” when she is 7 years old. With encouragement from her loving yet troubled father, she takes up rock climbing. The activity gives the reader and, by association, Sam, a rich metaphor to explain the stages of a girl’s life.

As Sam climbs and strategizes her way to the top of an indoor climbing wall and eventually graduates to a large boulder outdoors, she is intent on hauling herself to the next secure landing. From atop those landings, Goodman provides an aerial view of a hardscrabble life and a complicated girlhood. Sam’s exhausted mother works two jobs, and her father is constantly disappearing.

However, Sam’s voice is unwavering and powerful for its clarity and consistency. Although Goodman writes in the third person, the narrative is intimate, and throughout wholly belongs to Sam. The eye of Goodman’s camera stays focused in this superb novel.

Goodman, who lives in Cambridge, set “SAM” on Massachusetts’s North Shore. She talked to JewishBoston about writing a coming-of-age story and choosing to place Sam, whose father is Jewish, outside of the institutionalized Jewish community.

What is “SAM” about?

“SAM” is a coming-of-age story about how a girl grows up and becomes very human. In some ways, that’s a simple premise, and in other ways it’s complicated because people are so complicated. I was recently at the New England Independent Booksellers Association conference where booksellers asked me the same question: “What is ‘SAM’ about?” And then, one of them picked up the book and asked what genre the novel was. She asked if it was horror, suspense, mystery, romance or adventure. And since it’s a coming-of-age story, I said it was all of the above.

At the beginning of the book, your note to readers says your daughter was the inspiration for the book. How did her girlhood, and even your girlhood, influence you as you wrote “SAM”?

(Courtesy image)

I have four children, three sons and a daughter, and my daughter is the youngest. I had never raised a daughter, and the one I got was very rambunctious and active. She was always climbing the walls and definitely not a bookish kid like her three brothers and parents. She was constantly around and experimented. I was interested in her energy as a child, which also made me think of my childhood. I remember being a little kid wondering why adults always seemed so tired. They never ran from place to place like little kids. I grew up and finally knew why adults were so tired. But where does that energy go, especially for girls? When girls are little, they think they can take on the world. They have all this energy and optimism and hope; they’re just full of beans. Answering the question of where a girl’s energy goes gave me the idea of writing the story of one girl’s life.

Why is Sam a rock climber?

I was interested in Sam becoming a rock climber partly because she was literally climbing the walls when the book starts. I was also interested in rock climbing because a climber has to be creative and strategic to be a good boulderer. It’s not just about being strong or physical; you need to have the will to climb your way up. Climbers frame it as having to solve a problem as they climb up the face of a boulder. Sam is bright and problem-solving is what she likes about climbing. It’s like the body is the missing piece of the puzzle.

Are you a rock climber?

No, I’m an observer. I did my research by watching people climb outdoors and in the gym. Two of my kids climb very casually in gyms just for fun. But for me, it was much more about thinking my way through it. I’m like Sam’s boyfriend, who says, “I rappelled once in camp.” I’m at that level.

When I think of rock climbing, I think of Sam and her mother, Courtney, constantly defying the gravity of their situation. Is that defiance key to their growth?

That’s a beautiful way to put it. Courtney is a single mom who had Sam in college. She dropped out of college, raising Sam and her younger brother with very little money as she worked two jobs. She feels the pull of gravity as she tries to make a life for herself and her children. Every day is defying gravity for this woman. It’s hard, but she has a support network. Yet at the end of the day, Courtney takes care of her two kids by herself, which is brutally hard. And if anything happens to Courtney, if she gets sick or if the car breaks down, she and her family don’t have many cushions. So, the force of gravity and her socioeconomic situation weighs on her, which is why she’s constantly nagging Sam to work harder and go to school. Sam doesn’t understand her mother’s insistence until she’s older. Her mom is a rock, but her dad is pure imagination. He’s unreliable and has many problems, but Sam has some of his curiosity about the world.

“SAM” has been called a “deceptively simple” novel. What does that description mean?

Sam is 7 years old when the book starts, and it feels like a 7-year-old thinking and articulating. Then the language grows more sophisticated. Saying the novel is “deceptively simple” makes the point that there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles in the book. There isn’t a huge apparatus of plot and there aren’t a million characters. What makes it complex is that a human being is complex.

Unlike some of your novels, Judaism is on the periphery in “SAM.” Sam’s father, Mitchell, is born Jewish. Her friend Halle’s family practices Judaism. How do these examples influence Sam’s relationship with Judaism?

I’m a Jewish writer through and through, and one of my big topics is the American Jewish community, which includes Sam. She’s just in the unaffiliated community not associated with institutional Judaism. But her dad is Jewish, and that fact looms large for her. She has a Jewish heritage, which she may or may not explore as she gets older, and that’s real too. My novel “Kaaterskill Falls,” about a very observant Orthodox community summering in the Catskills, overtly deals with the rhythms of Jewish life. And then I have characters in my other books where the Jews are very secular. Sam will never have a bat mitzvah; she’s not from that world. I am very interested in religion and spirituality. Those two things spread throughout my work, whether the characters are Jewishly affiliated. I have a comprehensive view of 21st-century American Judaism.

“SAM” was a recent selection of Jenna Bush Hager’s book club, “Read With Jenna.” Did your readership consequently expand?

Jenna Bush Hager’s passion is literacy and encouraging her large audience to read and talk about books. She’s carrying the torch for her mother, who, as first lady, advocated for literacy. The best part about appearing on “Hoda & Jenna” and being included in Jenna’s program was that it brought new readers to my work. People who had never heard of me read “SAM.” The story is so intimate. Readers felt that intimacy and recognized themselves in the book, which was amazing.