About A Boy
Written by: Nick Hornby
Synopsis: Will is thirty-six, comfortable and child-free. And he's discovered a brilliant new way of meeting women - through single-parent groups. Marcus is twelve and a little bit nerdish: he's got the kind of mother who made him listen to Joni Mitchell rather than Nirvana. Perhaps they can help each other out a little bit, and both can start to act their age.
The worst thing about seeing a film before reading the book it's based on is that the casting choices are 99% likely to influence the way I visualise the characters. Case in point, I can't read the character of Will in About A Boy without seeing Hugh Grant. And since re-watching Love Actually this Christmas I can't think about Hugh Grant without picturing this...
Is Will as awkward/dorky as I picture him, or is that because of Hugh Grant and the roles Hugh Grant typically takes on? And do I feel a bit torn about this book because I felt that way about the movie, or because I genuinely felt like the book fell a little flat? I just don't know guys, I just don't know.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I came across a post on my name twin's blog (Comma Enthusiast) about Nick Hornby and all his wonderfulness and I made a mental note to read more Hornby, and then I spotted a copy of About A Boy at the amazing Book Fest. That was all the hints I needed, clearly I was meant to read this book.
I did actually really enjoy this book, and I can understand why people LOVE it, but it just didn't quite hit all the right notes for me. I mean, it's this wonderfully small narrative about a family and an interloper, and there's Nirvana love, and lies about having kids, and people struggling with being different and with depression and there are sweet bits, and sad bits, and funny bits and WHY DON'T I LOVE THIS BOOK?
I think I've narrowed it down to two main points;
1. Will will never not be Hugh Grant to me, and I never really believe Hugh Grant. Even when he's supposed to be playing nice, nerdy, genuine dudes I always feel like he's two minutes away from doing something shady. So I think I instinctually had a hesitance about Will and how he fits into the narrative, even though I actually really like him as a character.
2. Fiona is the worst mother in the world. I could list about 10,000 things here and I think a lot of people would be like "oh but she's depressed/has mental health issues" but no, most of my criticisms have little to no bearing on her mental health. Basically, the way I see it she's made Marcus into this specific human being and then just stopped caring or listening to him. She forces her world views and music taste and food preferences on him, and when he strays from her path she just shuts him down. She acts as though she's this egalitarian mother who is friends with her son, but she doesn't let him experience or discover anything for himself. He is constantly regurgitating her opinions and her bias, and when he starts to have independent thoughts she picks fights she knows she can't lose. Sooooo yeah, Fiona is the worst* and even being played by Toni Collette in the film couldn't save her.
But in the end this is a story about Marcus. And I think you'd need to have a heart made of stone not to feel warm and protective for that weird little kid. I think Nick Hornby did an amazing job of showing how wide the gap between child and adult is, and how little adults can understand how difficult it is to be a normal kid, let alone the new boy with weird hair and glasses who sings with his eyes closed, loves Joni Mitchell and is picked on for no reason. Will acts as an intermediary for Marcus. As an adult who has never worked a day in his life, he's the best (best? hmmm) of both worlds and there's a level of growth that happens to both of the protagonists as a direct result of the strange little relationship they start up. But in the end I think Marcus mostly has to work through it and sort it out for himself, like doing the sky in a jigsaw puzzle - fumbling with similar looking pieces until something finally clicks together.
It's a very typical Hornby book in terms of style, which to me is a huge plus. There are tonnes of film and music references, very realistic and flawed characters and it's all just a little bit heart warming and fuzzy. Stylistically and narratively I think Hornby was right on the money, but whether it was the two issues I located above or a slight faltering in the concept, I don't know, it just didn't propel me to the highs of Hornby's other brilliant works.
*The one moment I actually really appreciated her was towards the end when she was talking to Will at a bar. (no spoilers) but her little confession was honest and I actually think validates some of what I said above.