About a Boy by Nick Hornby book cover
About a Boy (1998) is one of Nick Hornby’s early novels, and appeals to similar sensibilities as his earlier High Fidelity. Marcus, 12, and his mum, Fiona, have just moved to London from a leafy, liberal outpost in Cambridge. Out of his element, and with little knowledge of popular culture (his favourite singer is Joni Mitchell), Marcus is relentlessly bullied at his new school, and militant vegan Fiona hardly has a better time of it; a single parent, new in town, and with a sinking depression. Will, on the other hand, is a thirty-something, no commitments lad, who lives off the royalties from a cheesy Christmas song his father wrote some years previous. Will doesn’t work, and fills his days with vapid frivolities and time-killing exercises, spending much of his life chasing after women, and running away from responsibility. When Will stumbles across a new plan – to seek out and sleep with single mothers (desperate and not looking for commitment, so he reasons) – his world unexpectedly collides with Marcus’s. Devoid of a father figure, Marcus latches onto Will and, when Fiona attempts to top herself, it is Will he reaches out to. Between them, the boys rub along, each learning a little from the other, and when both find women and romance unexpectedly creeping into their lives, things begin to slowly change, and neither man nor boy remain an island.

Hornby was widely-recognised as one of the most prominent writers of ‘lad-lit’ around the turn of the century, and here he deals with male insecurity, the difficulty of assuming responsibility, and how damaging men’s failure to engage with the women and children who surround them can be (Although there is a little too much of Woman as Victim, and Man as Abuser - the novel would have benefited from a little more balance). Will is representative of a trend that was taking hold at the time, that of the man who clings to adolescence and fails to embrace maturity, choosing instead to enjoy immature pursuits and obsess over ‘coolness’ rather than matters of substance. In that respect, this is a record of the changing role of the man in society, and the flaws of shirking responsibility.

Will is not the only adult who steps in front of the crosshairs however; Fiona’s parenting technique is equally under scrutiny. Though she cares about Marcus, she fails to appreciate his situation, and the pressures of his generation. The novel clearly advocates the need for strong parenting, which includes more than supporting a child’s basic needs, and building a close, emotionally honest relationship as well.

Though Marcus is bullied for not fitting in, and Will helps him to an extent, there is always a question as to the necessity to ‘fit in’ – Will providing a good counter-example of someone who builds a personality based on transient trends, and fails to engage with any real issues, or nurture a truly connected or valuable life.

The title is a play on the Nirvana (who are the most heavily mentioned cultural reference) track About a Girl, but it’s equally an irony that questions which of the two lead males is truly the ‘boy’. The chapters alternate between Marcus’s and Will’s narratives and Marcus, as a more sympathetic and quirky character, is arguably a more engaging read, certainly much of the humour comes from his misunderstanding of the world. Equally, the contrast between the too-mature Marcus and too-immature Will leads to some amusing conversation as ideologies rub up against each other.

Many of the relationships make for quirky and interesting reading, but Marcus’s relationship with Ellie (his romantic interest) is one that doesn’t ring true. The novel unravels towards the end as Marcus’s preoccupation with this girl takes over a little, and the plot becomes a little muddled; neither serious nor terribly amusing.

Hornby deals with what are essentially quite large and emotional issues with a light touch, and manages to express ideas without weighing the novel down. This sense of insubstantiality is not always a positive thing, but in general Hornby covers a lot of ‘big’ issues in what is a very readable book. This is a light read and the plot certainly drifts a little towards the end. There are some decent ideas wrestled into a mass-appeal package, which certainly delivers a diverting read.

This is the second Nick Hornby book I've read and in truth I don't think they're really 'my thing'. Some of the humour is amusing but most of the book just drifted by, pleasant enough but nothing to really get me excited or interested.

Useful Links
Reviews of About a Boy on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of About a Boy on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of About a Boy on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of About a Boy on Amazon (US) 

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