Bewilderment by Richard Powers

Bewilderment is not an easy read; it’s a complicated, heavy, ambitious, emotionally intelligent read. It requires critical thinking, patience, and time to reflect on the themes. It is steeped in science, and at times, I lost patience with it, and it took me a long time to get through the story. It is also an extraordinary, tender, insightful story that offers us many questions to ponder about the themes.


A lot is going on here with the story’s themes, and it is laid out there for us what is at stake. I had some mixed feelings about the way the themes are explored. It feels like Powers provokes a sense of dread in a world buckled down under the weight of the explored themes. On the one hand, that opens up an insightful story; on the other, it feels like instilling fear and making a point.

Head and Heart/Parenting: The story’s heart is the moving, tender love story of a father, Theo, and his bond with his unusual nine-year-old son, Robin, as they navigate grief, uncertainty, and the different ways Robin’s brain works following the death of Robin’s mother.  

I loved the complexities of parenting explored as Theo uses his heart to do what he thinks is best for Robin while ignoring and denying what everyone is telling him about Robin’s behavior. Theo shows us the helplessness parents feel when trying to do what is best for their child while providing love and acceptance. His love and acceptance make him blind to the complexities of Robin’s behavior and denial that Robin’s disruptive behavior might need more than he can give him. 

Big Pharma

After Robin is labeled with “special needs,” Theo refuses to put him on psychoactive drugs. Theo denies that Robin needs help managing his emotions and is skeptical that doctors’ suggestions are motivated by Big Pharma.

Robin finds the wilderness calming and Theo turns to nature to nurture Robin. After an incident at school, Theo is given an ultimate, find a solution for his behavior, or authorities will intervene. Feeling he out of options Theo agrees to an experimental neurofeedback treatment to regulate Robin’s emotions.

Climate Change/Science denial

The story explores the weight of telling children about our crumbling world while trying to understand why there is denial that climate change is real. Robin wants to continue his Mother’s environmental causes and is fixated and obsessed with climate activism. He draws hundreds pictures of endangered species to raise awareness and sell for charities. He is confused as to why people won’t do anything about the natural world collapsing. Through Robin, we see how the weight of this truth might burden a child.

American Politics

Powers highlights the doom of right-wing authoritarianism and makes some references to Trump without mentioning his name. It all felt a bit too complicated and heavy for me to understand some of his underlying meaning, and I needed it spelled out for me.

Characters: I liked that the story solely focuses on Theo and Robin while the ghost-like presence of Robin’s mother lingers over them. However, while tackling all the themes in the story and their weight, I feel Powers forgets to develop his characters. While I experienced many emotions while reading, I felt for the characters, but I found it hard to feel with them and see how they grew and changed from their conflicts. However, I am not sure that was the story’s point, and I can’t say anymore because of spoilers.

What I loved: The number of questions the story provokes. Questions that show how complex our world is with no real answers and that gave me a lot to think deeply about.

What I didn’t love as much: How heavy the story is and weighed down by the themes and science.

Published in September, 2021 Read in June 2022

Genre: Environment fiction

Source: Own Book

Shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, New York Times notable book of 2021