Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: About a Boy

by Nick Hornby

About a Boy

Last May, I attended Grub Street's Muse and the Marketplace conference in Boston and met with agent Rachel Sussman. She was quite kind and mentioned that my writing style was hip, funny and spare (news to me!) and also that I had something in common with writers Nick Hornby and Tom Perotta.

Now, I'd read some of both these authors ("High Fidelity" and "Little Children" respectively) but the comparison hadn't really occurred to me because, Hornby and Perrotta truly are hip and spare and (quite) male and I figured my work was more in the quirky, square and decidedly female vein. So before I added the comparison into my query, I I thought I better read a little more from these guys.

I started with "About a Boy" because it seemed the plot had similar elements to my own (An adult male layabout develops a positive relationship with a kid). As I read, however, I began to worry that indeed, not only my style and general topic were similar to Mr. Hornby's, but the novels had some eerie synchronicities as well: First off, the main adult character benefits from his father's one hit ("Santa's Super Sleigh") and is slumming in much the way that Zorro is. Also, the kid is a quirky misfit with a challenging single mom.

As I read, the novel began to terrify me a bit. I began to wonder if I should drop the "readers of Nick Hornby and Tom Perrota" line from my in-the-works query for fear of calling attention to the similarities. What if someone thought I was copying or something? (Of course, I've just discussed the similarities on the world wide web so, there it is)

It's a strange thing to come across a novel that is, on the surface, so closely related to the one you've been in-the-dark struggling with for for nearly two years. But having now finished "About a Boy", I can say that although there are those surface similarities, the novels aren't really much alike.

Now. Having gotten THAT out of the way, here's the review:

It took me a while to get into the spirit of "About a Boy". The characters seemed, not slick exactly, but so surface-smooth I had a hard time relating to them. This was less so for Marcus, the "boy" of the title. He is endearing from the start, quirky and sweet and so clearly trying to figure out the adults in his life. Marcus' mom, Fiona, is particularly hard to fathom and her depression-- a crucial element-- is never clear or real-seeming. (That said Hornby uses one small habit-- Fiona's annoying need to sing with her eyes closed-- brilliantly.) Will, the slumming product of a one-hit-wonder, is quite shallow and remains more or less this way. He does develop some over the course of the novel, and there is some lovely prose describing Will's newfound vulnerability, but it felt to me as if the "heart" of the novel was somewhat missing.

Perhaps this is why I found "About a Boy" so slow initially-- There was little to care about. But eventually, the novel pulls us in and I found myself fully engaged in Marcus' clueless striving and Will's selfish attempts to capitalize on his relationships with single mothers. (He invents a son so that he will be more attractive to them.)

The novel is very much fixed in the early 90's, and the demise of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana is at the heart of the plot. And the plot itself isn't typical in its trajectory.

"About a Boy" is funny though, in a witty, very-English way and I feel I understand 30 ish 90's hipsters much better than I did when I myself was 30ish and unhip in the 90's. Hornby has a real skill at describing abstract emotions in with clarity and humor.


Ariel Swan said...

I can relate to the similarity terror. And thanks for the review. I have seen the film versions of both of these books - but I've not read either.

Alicia Gregoire said...

I don't think you need to worry about the how similar it is - you have a gibbon which makes yours much different.

I've only read High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, but I enjoyed enough that I'm planning on reading more by him. Thanks for the review!