About a Boy, by Nick Hornby


Title: About a Boy
Author: Nick Hornby
Publisher: Riverhead Trade
Date of Publication: 2002
Where to Buy It: Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble

From Amazon (and the back of the book):

Will Freeman may have discovered the key to dating success: If the simple fact that they were single mothers meant that gorgeous women—women who would not ordinarily look twice at Will—might not only be willing, but enthusiastic about dating him, then he was really onto something. Single mothers—bright, attractive, available women—thousands of them, were all over London. He just had to find them.
SPAT: Single Parents—Alone Together. It was a brilliant plan. And Will wasn't going to let the fact that he didn't have a child himself hold him back. A fictional two-year-old named Ned wouldn't be the first thing he'd invented. And it seems to go quite well at first, until he meets an actual twelve-year-old named Marcus, who is more than Will bargained for...

I have had About a Boy on my shelf for a really long time. I loved the movie and firmly believe that Hugh Grant's role as Will proves that he can act in more serious roles. Though it is a comedy, the story of the awkward Marcus and his unlikely friendship with the emotionally dysfunctional Will is a dark one at times. Still, I always find it hard to read a book after I have seen the movie, and I find it equally hard to see a movie if I have read the book version first. I understand that they (meaning the book and the movie) are separate things. I loved About a Boy--the movie--so much that I didn't want to ruin it for myself. But I don't think that I have.

For the most part, the book and the movie are very similar. The main difference? There is no "Killing Me Softly" scene at the end of the book...and if you haven't seen the movie, you  must do so. This scene alone makes it worthwhile. But back to the point. The last third or so of the book, however, is completely different from the movie. (Yes, there are other differences along the way, but these are the most significant.) But the core story of young Marcus deciding that he needs more people in his life, and Will's ultimate acceptance of himself and Marcus's ideas as his own, remains the same.

It always makes me laugh that the back of the cover seems to stress that this is Will's story. Sure, Will, the adult slacker of the novel, gets a lot of page time, but this is more Marcus's story than Will's. So, after much rambling in this post, here is a brief synopsis:

The book takes place between 1993 and 1994, and it follows Marcus, who is a young middle-school-aged kid whose parents have just split up. His dad, who is more interested in his new girlfriend, remains in Cambridge, while Marcus and his mom move to London to begin a new life. Marcus is an awkward child who lives to make his mom happy. She is severely depressed (as in so depressed that she tries to kill herself), and Marcus believes that he needs to keep her on an even emotional path each day so that he can come home to her each night. He doesn't have any friends and is the victim of bullying, but his life starts to change when he meets Will, a man who lives off of his father's one-hit-wonder and who is pretending to be a single parent so that he can meet single moms (who he believes will be so desperate to sleep with him but then want to get rid of him...no commitment...just the way Will likes it). Marcus sees straight through Will during their first meeting. But Will becomes involved in Marcus's life when they discover Marcus's mother, Fiona, nearly dead, and then Marcus forces his way into Will's life from this point forward. In the end, Marcus and Will discover their own purpose in life and the importance of making your own family.

Another character in the book who gets a lot of page time (but not much film time) is a high school-aged girl named Ellie. She doesn't get mentioned in many of the summaries of the book or the movie, but she is an important character. She helps Marcus realize several important things about himself and life, and she captures the teen angst of the early 1990s well.

My thoughts...

My thoughts about this book are complicated, because I like it so much. I also think that it is an interesting addition to the YA cannon in some ways. Is this book YA? Not exactly, but I think it would appeal to many YA readers. Marcus is about to be a teenager and Will is a perpetual teenager. Ellie is the real teen of the novel, but she helps show us why leaving the teen years behind is so important in the end. Teenagehood, to use a lack of a better word, is a crucial stage in our lives and one that remains mysterious long after we exit it. We may try to capture the artistic beauty and mystique of that time in our lives, but we probably should never try to go back to that time in reality! (In fact, I can't think of anything worse.)

So, this book, for me, calls into question our fascination with teen lit/YA lit. Why are we so hooked on it? Why are adults flocking to the teen section of bookstores and libraries just as much as the actual teen readers? I think it is about capturing that essence of who we were and figuring out if any of us at sixteen still remains with us today. When you are a teenager, you feel misunderstood. The world really is crap in a lot of ways. Teen lit, at least for me at that time in my life, was a way to escape and wallow in the mystery of that period of my life. It was poetic and beautiful...at least in my mind away from the reality of it. I think the same idea applies to adults reading teen lit now. Sure, the plots are fantastic, but there is something so alluring about going back to that period in your life when you were overwhelmed with feeling, emotion, and drama...and not much else. No kids. No mortgages. It is a unique point in our lives.

So, that is why I think About a Boy is interesting and important. It shows  us three different stages at once, and in the middle of it all, we see something real. I would recommend this book to just about anyone. It would appeal to men, women, teen readers, and readers of general fiction. So, pick it up and let me know what you think!

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.

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