Synopses & Reviews
tells the American outlaw saga lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. With an immediacy made possible only after ten years of reporting, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses the reader in the mind-boggling intricacies of the little-known ghetto world. She charts the tumultuous cycle of the generations, as girls become mothers, mothers become grandmothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation.
Two romances thread through Random Family: the sexually charismatic nineteen-year-old Jessica's dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and fourteen-year-old Coco's first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar, an aspiring thug. Fleeing from family problems, the young couples try to outrun their destinies. Chauffeurs whisk them to getaways in the Poconos and to nightclubs. They cruise the streets in Lamborghinis and customized James Bond cars. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between life and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George's business activities; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty. Together, then apart, the teenagers make family where they find it. Girls look for excitement and find trouble; boys, searching for adventure, join crews and prison gangs. Coco moves upstate to dodge the hazards of the Bronx; Jessica seeks solace in romance. Both find that love is the only place to go.
A gifted prose stylist and a profoundly compassionate observer, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has slipped behind the cold statistics and sensationalism surrounding inner-city life and come back with a riveting, haunting, and true urban soap opera that reveals the clenched grip of the streets. Random Family is a compulsive read and an important journalistic achievement, sure to take its place beside the classics of the genre.
The artistry of this frank, enthralling book lies in the utter simplicity - and careful, subtle selectivity - with which she plainly describes the determining events in what will now be unforgettable lives....[W]hat might have been a lurid, discouraging story winds up with backbone and hope
..Random Family reveals more about what keeps people together than what drives them apart. Janet Maslin, The New York Times
What separates Random Family from other accounts of inner-city pathology is how vivid she makes her characters, in their faults as much as in their virtues
.It becomes a thick, dense, rich narrative: literary anthropology that reads like a novel. Michael J. Agovino, Newsweek
This book makes human the unrelenting problems of the ghetto
Random Family does not spell out any analytic conclusions, but the reporting does illuminate the lived reality of our social policies.
The precarious world Random Family depicts, the fragility of life and relationships, is probably more like the sweep of human history than most of us realize. It is a sobering thought. Tanya Luhrmann, The New York Observer
Somehow managing to be both journalistically objective and novelistically passionate, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has made a singular contribution to the literature of the American underclass. An unforgettable and intimate portrait of life in the urban trenches, as much about love and longing as it is about the statistics of despair. Richard Price
I know no other writer who has dug in as deep as Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. She didn't just report; she burrowed for years into a world she came to know so well that it lost every speck of foreignness. That astonishing intimacy allowed her to view this book's random family as one might view one's own family: with a mixture of exasperation and respect, disappointment and love. If God is in the details, this is a holy book. Anne Fadiman
"In the richness, vitality, and visceral power of its prose, Random Family struck me in the same way that Hubert Selby's classic Last Exit to Brooklyn did with detail-driven force. The stories recounted here, of careening lives and urban struggle, seem both familiar and exotic, for this straightforwardly written, often gripping book reads like a fantastic tale from another world which happens to be the Bronx. Well done." Oscar Hijuelos
Random Family is a remarkable piece of reportage, an important, up-close window into a tucked-away corner of America. Watching Jessica's and Coco's lives unfold over the course of ten years is by turns unsettling and affecting, and their stories have stayed with me. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc has written a book that's epochal in scope and unflinching in its candor. It's one compelling read. Alex Kotlowitz
This book has a fresh, even original quality. It is a family saga, but of a most unusual kind, an intimate and detailed portrait of a world that is shamefully hidden away. I read it compulsively, thankful for its candor and above all its fascination. Tracy Kidder
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc brings to life a world often resisted. Writing in the tradition of James Agee and Walker Evans, she invites us to see in a new way people whose lives are often despised or dismissed. Random Family reads like a novel. This is a brilliant, original book. Carol Gilligan
In her extraordinary bestseller, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immerses readers in the intricacies of the ghetto, revealing the true sagas lurking behind the headlines of gangsta glamour, gold-drenched drug dealers, and street-corner society. Focusing on two romances—Jessica’s dizzying infatuation with a hugely successful young heroin dealer, Boy George, and Coco’s first love with Jessica's little brother, Cesar—Random Family
is the story of young people trying to outrun their destinies. Jessica and Boy George ride the wild adventure between riches and ruin, while Coco and Cesar stick closer to the street, all four caught in a precarious dance between survival and death. Friends get murdered; the DEA and FBI investigate Boy George; Cesar becomes a fugitive; Jessica and Coco endure homelessness, betrayal, the heartbreaking separation of prison, and, throughout it all, the insidious damage of poverty.
Charting the tumultuous cycle of the generations—as girls become mothers, boys become criminals, and hope struggles against deprivation—LeBlanc slips behind the cold statistics and sensationalism and comes back with a riveting, haunting, and true story.
About the Author
Adrian Nicole LeBlanc's first book, Random Family, was a New York Times Bestseller, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the winner of The Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and the Ridenhour Book Prize. LeBlanc's work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Esquire, Elle, Spin, The Source, The Village Voice, and other magazines. She holds a B.A. in sociology from Smith College, a Master's of Philosophy and Modern Literature from Oxford University, and a Master of Law Studies from Yale Law School. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Bunting fellowship from Radcliffe, a MacDowell Colony residency, and a Soros Media Fellowship from the Open Society. LeBlanc lives in Manhattan.
Reading Group Guide
Reading Group Guide
1. At the beginning of the book, the author writes that "chance was opportunity in the ghetto and you had to be prepared for anything." What opportunities did Jessica, Boy George, Coco, and Cesar consider significant, and how did they prepare for them? Did they have opportunities they could not see? Why?
2. Loyalty plays a crucial role in Random Family. What did it mean to each of the principal characters? How do their loyalties shape the course of their lives?
3. We are told that "For Jessica, love was the most interesting place to go and beauty was the ticket." Describe the relationship between romance and money in the lives of the book's female characters. Is this different, in degree or in kind, from the sexual economy in mainstream American life?
4. We meet Cesar as a young boy, sitting on "the broken steps of his mother's building, biding his time, watching the older boys who ruled the street." Who were his male role models? According to their example, what did becoming a man entail? How did this understanding of manhood prepare Cesar for prison? How did his definition of masculinity change over time?
5. For the teenage girls in Random Family, what are the attractions of being a mother? What sort of power and influence-real or imagined-is associated with the role?
6. Describe the role of social service agencies in Coco's life. Describe the ways in which their treatment of her enhanced or undermined her own sense of agency.
7. By conventional standards, Elaine and Iris are more successful than their sisters. What qualities and actions were instrumental in achieving that success? What price did they pay for it? How do their strategies confirm or challenge traditional notions about the supportive functions of families?
8. Explore the reasons why the households in this book are often in a state of flux. Why do people move? What are the advantages and disadvantages of relocation? Do men and women move for the same reasons?
9. Many of the characters in Random Family continue to be optimistic, even cheerful, despite extremely difficult lives and setbacks. When and how can hope be a sustaining force and when and how can it be a destructive one? Discuss.
10. The author writes, "The sexual threat men posed to little girls was so pervasive that even the warnings meant to avert it were saturated with fatalism." Explore the ways in which the ubiquity of sexual abuse in the world of the book affects the characters' attitudes about it.
11. None of the young people in the book blame their circumstances for the choices they made, yet much of the public discussion of the poor uses terms that infer moral and personal blame. Why do you think this is? Would you assign blame for the tragedies described here? To whom? Why?
12. Political activists often complain about society's "crisis approach" to poverty, how basic supports are only granted in emergencies. Are there examples of this in the book? What alternate strategies would improve the lives of children like Mercedes?
13. Have your ideas about poverty and privilege changed since reading Random Family? Were there moments when you particularly empathized with the people in this book? Were there moments that you felt particularly alienated? If so, when and why?
14. The author, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, interacted with/observed??? these families for over a decade and was witness to most of the events that took place, yet she is not present in the narrative. How might this have been a different book if she had included herself as a character? Why does she leave herself out?
15. In an interview about the title, the author described her ongoing interest in the families teenagers form among their friends and the appeal of self-created families. Have "random families" played an important role in your own life?