Thursday, April 29, 2010

Co-review: About A Boy

We weren't supposed to read About A Boy by Nick Hornby for our co-review this month.  We were supposed to read How To Be Good by Nick Hornby, but Caren's library system had a computer meltdown and couldn't get a hold of it, or find out if they had it.  They did have About A Boy on the shelves so she picked that up instead and I requested a copy for myself.  It wasn't what I had picked to read, but I figured it was still by Nick Hornby--whose work I've been curious about--and that was good enough. 

I'm guessing that at least some of our readers have seen the movie, About A Boy, so they're already going to know the basics of the story.  Will Freeman is a man who has perfected the art of doing nothing.  He lives on the royalties of a song his father wrote many years ago.  He is a casual drug user, an inept liar, and a person who has chosen to be disengaged from humanity.  He's only interested in music and television and does not desire, nor see the point of, having a family or deep emotional connections with other people.

Enter Marcus and his depressed mother.  Through a series of events that include Will lying about having a child to get into bed with hot single mothers, Will becomes involved with twelve-year-old Marcus and all of his many issues.  After his mother's suicide attempt, Marcus has decided that he needs more people in his circle than just his mother and rarely-seen father.  He decides that Will knows the secrets to dealing with school bullies and social situations that require behavior that eludes Marcus, so he keeps coming to visit Will despite Will's strong desire for him to just disappear.  Will has no interest in dealing with anything that smells of responsibility.

As always, we don't hold back for these reviews, but don't worry.  There isn't exactly some big secret that gets revealed at the end anyway.  It's more of a gradual evolution of the characters.

Jenny:  I wasn't too excited about reading this book after you told me how bad the language was.  You were right, there were way too many f-words.  It got old. 

What I did like was how well Hornby portrayed Marcus' inner dialogue.  The constant fear of a repeat of the Dead Duck Day was so real and made me feel that same dread that Marcus was feeling.  It made me want to just hug him and make it all better.  Also, he doesn't get sarcasm at all and his puzzlement over what Will was saying to him half the time was fun.  I loved how he wanted Ellie to be his girlfriend, but had no interest in physical intimacy.  I understood his frustration at adults not understanding what he needed or was saying because I remember feeling that exact same way.  "Just stay out of their way" has got to be the worst advice for dealing with school bullies an adult has ever said to a kid that age.  These things were probably my favorite parts of the book.  Marcus is just wonderfully likable.

Caren: Yes, Marcus was great.  And I couldn't help but like Will too.  Even though he was such a waste of human flesh for the first half of the book, the humor and absurdity of his life engendered affection whether he deserved it or not.  Aside from the language (which was really over-the-top, I thought), I really enjoyed Hornby's style of writing and sense of humor.  And as funny as the writing was, there was more to it than that because as the characters developed the overall message was that the bonds that tie us to others are bonds of security, not captivity.

Towards the end of the book, though, I was less impressed with the evolution of Marcus and the message that came along with that.  I like that he became more accepted, but did he have to do it by embracing the frivolous trappings of his peers?  He ends up turning his back on the things he valued in the past because they were all things his mom kind of thrust on him and were making him geeky.  That's fine, and I think it was great for him to exercise some independence, but did he have to do it by completely rejecting his mother's lifestyle in favor of the superficial?  I thought some middle ground would have been better.

I was also disappointed with the final message that you can't count on the marriage relationship surviving so it's best that you surround yourself with as many people as possible outside of marriage because they'll always be there no matter what.  Sadly, that may be true for some people, but it still bugged me that it was portrayed as a good thing.  That every other relationship can be counted on except the one between your mother and father, or you and your spouse.  With that kind of a depressing outlook, Marcus is doomed to misery in his adult life!

Jenny:  I feel like we got a glimpse of how Marcus would end up when Will was trying to help him fit in at school, telling him to become invisible by becoming like everyone else. It made me sad that that was how Will taught him to be accepted was by conformity.  That's why kids who stand out are mocked and scorned and tormented, though, is because they refuse to be part of the crowd.  Or they are oblivious, like Marcus.  It makes me wonder why that's so threatening, to be different.

I've been thinking about Ellie all day.  Did you know anybody like that in high school?  Constantly in trouble and mad at the world?  There was a guy who sat next to me in my English class my junior year who had a blue mohawk and tons of piercings.  He acted like he was this rebel, had big ideas and nobody understood him.  Then I realized he did all that to get a reaction out of people.  He was pretty shallow, really.  I felt that way about Ellie.  She liked pushing buttons with her Kurt Cobain sweatshirt and black lipstick.  I think it was an act.  Then when Marcus called her out on her insincere comments about suicide, I was cheering. 

Will's evolution through the course of the book was one of my favorite aspects.  Here's my favorite passage from the end of the book when Will is at the police station with Marcus' parents and Ellie and her mother:
Some of these people he hadn't known until today; some of them he had only known for a little while, and even then he couldn't say that he knew them well.  But here they were anyway...all of them bound to each other in ways that it would be almost impossible to explain to anyone who had just wandered in.  Will couldn't recall ever having been caught up in this sort of messy, sprawling, chaotic web before; it was almost as if he had been been given a glimpse of what it was like to be human.  It wasn't too bad, really; he wouldn't even mind being human on a full-time basis.  
Will had spent his whole adult life trying to avoid these situations and now has discovered that it's not so bad after all.  Compare that to the beginning of the book where he is repulsed by his friends with a new baby!

Caren: That's a great quote!  I was a bit disappointed in Marcus' ending, but I was happy that Will had a lot more potential to really live life at the end.  And I felt the same way about Ellie.  It was all just a show, and I was so glad that Marcus figured out that her act was so shallow and meaningless.

I'm curious if you liked it enough to read some more of Hornby's stuff.  I don't think I will -- unless it's by recommendation.  There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I didn't like it so much that it was worth putting up with all the language.  There are just too many other things I'd rather spend my time reading.

Jenny:  Nah, I probably won't bother again unless somebody raves about something else.  It's kind of sad that we bothered to do it in the first place since there are other books out there worth the effort.  This wasn't really worth it.  Oh well, live and learn, right?  I'm feeling a little gun-shy about my choices for co-reviews this year since both have been duds.  Hopefully the Swan Thieves for next month will be amazing.  It'll redeem my choices so far. 

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I LOVE the movie based on this book, but they obviously changed things to make the movie more appealing. I think, unlike what you've said about the book, Marcus finds a middle ground between his hippie mom's ideas and what works for everyone else. I think I'll skip this book and just watch the movie again.

    By the way, I just finished reading The Swan Thieves. I'm interested to see what you guys have to say about it.