Will Behr lives on his own and does not want children, but he does see the point of single mothers, especially if they look like Julie Christie. Then he meets Marcus, whose parents have split up and who is being persecuted by bullies. Marcus discovers that Will has a lot to teach him about life.
This is the first Nick Hornby I've enjoyed. He uses very different characters from the other two, which were replete with emo 30-somethings struggling with life. In this novel, Will has no struggles, Marcus is all struggle but is twelve (and excellently portrayed, I thought), and Fiona is depressed and really struggling - but crucially Fiona is never the narrator.
I do find it a bit odd that Hornby's novels are consistently and unrelentingly set in Holloway. Clearly I'm not cool enough to live there and to get the in-jokes.
All the spare characters were well-developed and witty as well - Rachel, the beautiful single mother with the homicidal son; Ellie, who worships Kurt Cobain and adopts Marcus; Clive, Marcus' absent father, and Lindsey, his dappy new girlfriend (and her omnipresent mother!). All of the characters are a bit crazy, but just on the right side of believably crazy - unlike the extras in How To Be Good.
The premise is bizarre - a single man, rich from the royalties of a single song his father wrote, goes in search of partners at a Single Parents' Therapy Group... and Marcus tries to feed a duck a whole loaf of baguette in one go, with disastrous consequences. All of it stays just on the credible line, which makes it funny but somehow never quite laugh out loud funny.
Gets 1.5 stars because at least it was better than High Fidelity.
Fortunately, Nick Hornby is far more gifted than to leave these characters in such a state. This is a difficult novel where we do see the longing for the Lifetime movie ending, we see an adult grow up and we see that each of us pretending to be our own islands will ultimately work to our detriment as we're determined to force the rest of the world to acknowledge our island-i-ness. Hornby doesn't forbid our uniqueness, About a Boy just questions whether we cling to these lifestyles as a way of keeping the rest of the world at arms length. These characters are well drawn and recognizable.
For those that are wondering about the book vs. the movie, I was quite pleased all the way around in that they didn't make changes I feared after reading the book and hearing that there was to be a film version.
Sounds dull, but it isn't. It's witty, insightful, and intelligent. The writing style moves the reader along at a nice clip, with chapters alternating between Will and Marcus.
I didn't, however, like the ending. It's better than the cheesy ending of the movie version, with Hugh Grantsinging "Killing Me Softly", but I think the book would have ended on a better note if Marcus hadn't made the particular change he made. I don't want to spoil it, so that's all I'll say about that.
Listening to it was especially nice because I listen to listen to an English accent.
Now, after reading the book, not only am I reminded how much I love reading Nick Hornby’s books, but also how funny and yet poignant his words are.
Taken in the following order, these quotes may be confusing if you’ve never read the book or seen the movie. The story is about Marcus, twelve, and Will, thirty-six. Neither fits into the role of the “average” boy/man of their age. Marcus, because of the life he shares with his mother is far too old for his age, and Will, because of the actions of his father (his mother is completely absent, not even a mention, although I may have missed it), is far too immature for his. Their lives intersect in a very interesting way…and so follow great changes for each.
(Will) “In the past, any conversation that began this way usually meant that she had found something out, or that he had done something mean, or stupid, or grotesquely insensitive, but he really thought he had kept a clean sheet in this relationship. His silence bought him time while he scanned through his memory banks for any indiscretions he may have forgotten about, but there was nothing. He would have been extremely disappointed if he had found something, an overlooked infidelity, say…”
OK – while funny - that wasn’t poignant – so let’s try this from the perspective of Marcus, the twelve year-old. His mother tells him in frustration, “Oh, I don’t know what I mean. I just know that we’re not doing each other any good.”
“Hold on a moment. They didn’t do each other any good? For the first time since his mother had started crying, he wanted to cry, too. He knew she wasn’t doing him any good but he had no idea it worked both ways. What had he done to her? He couldn’t think of a single thing.”
And once more back to funny (and Will): “ So here he was, in his mid-thirties, knowing in all the places there was to know that he didn’t have a two year-old son but still working on the presumption that, when it came to the crunch, one would pop up from somewhere.”
With only the movie under my belt, I’d always thought the “boy” referred to in the title was Marcus…given that he’s twelve. But now that I’ve read the book, been in Will’s head even more than the voice-overs in the movie allowed me to be, I think the “boy” is Will. This came through more as the story of his growing up at the age of thirty-six, and it’s a very good one at that.
We are able to see him finally start to become involved in the world, in people, in life, in a way he’s never been before. At first, of course, it’s messy and frustrating and hard.
“So don’t deal with me!” He was nearly shouting now. He was certainly angry. They had been talking for less than three minutes, yet he was beginning to feel as though this telephone conversation was going to be his life’s work; that once every few hours he would put the receive down to eat and sleep and go to the toilet, and the rest of the time Fiona would be telling him one thing and then its opposite over and over again.”
Whether he’s writing from Will or Marcus’s point of view – Hornby’s words are witty and realistic and true. Thirty-six, twelve…he brings out the man in the boy and the boy in the man…and I’m always glad to be along for the ride.
“Sometimes Marcus sounded as though he were a hundred years old, and it broke Will’s heart.”
I love the way Hornby writes and the characters he creates. You don’t actually have to like the characters to like the story. I really appreciated the fact that Hornby didn’t force some unbelievable romantic relationship into the story. He lets the friendship take center stage. His books often revolve around man-children who are terrified to grow up and accept any real responsibility. Will definitely meets those requirements and he bugged me throughout the book. He is supposed to be so incredibly cool, but he just came across as a complete loser to me. He has no real friends or family. He has never held a job in his entire life. Every single decision he makes is completely selfish and self-serving and he is a habitual liar. All of those are red-flags and if I found out a guy I was dating lied about having a child, I think that would be a serious deal-breaker.
Marcus was by far by favorite part of the book. His odd way of looking at the world (possibly autistic?) is so honest, but also heartbreaking. He’s completely logical, but can’t pick up on normal social cues or sarcasm. It’s his influence on Will, unknowingly encouraging him to take a risk and try to engage in his own life, which had the biggest impact on me. It made me a bit sad that Marcus changed so much by the end of the book.
“All three of them had had to lose things in order to gain other things. Will had lost his shell and his cool and his distance, and he felt scared and vulnerable, but he got to be with Rachel; and Fiona had lost a big chunk of Marcus, and she got to stay away from the casualty ward; and Marcus had lost himself, and he got to walk home from school with his shoes on.”
BOTTOM LINE: I enjoyed this odd story about an unlikely friendship. It’s not my favorite Hornby novel (that would be High Fidelity and Juliet, Naked), but it’s up there. It’s also a good place to start with his work. I have a feeling that Marcus will stick with me for quite a while.
Will let Marcus butter the crumpets because he loved doing it. It was much better than buttering toast, beccause with toast you had that thing where if the butter was too cold and hard all you could do was scrape off the brown that made toast what it was, and he hated that. With crumpets it was effortless: you just put a lump of butter on top, waited for a few seconds, then messed it about until it started to disappear into the holes. It was one of the few occasions in life where things seemed to go right every time.
I was wrong.
See, I went into this thinking I obviously knew the story and the characters - but what happened was I quickly forgot about the movie version, and became fascinated with the story of Will, the selfish slacker who doesn't really have much of a point, and Marcus, the nerdy little boy who makes Will realize that yes, he does.
Once I started reading, I was hooked, and ended up purchasing my own copy, which I quickly devoured in about 4 days.