Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Book Review: About A Boy by Nick Hornby

About A Boy

Written by: Nick Hornby

Published: 1998

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.


  1. I read this before I saw the movie (I'm not sure if I've ever seen the movie the whole way through, actually) and I pretty much love love LOVE it! Also you've convinced me that I need to re-read it (probably weirdly, since you didn't LOVE it!) because Marcus loves Joni Mitchell?! This is something I didn't take in when I read it because I barely knew who Joni was (and I was all like NIRVANAAAAAAA) but yeah, I'm going to have to re-read it, I reckon!

    Also, the kids in this book are waaaay better than the adults, from what I can remember. So booo Will and Fiona hahaha

    1. The kids are definitely the best part of the book, wayyyyyy better than the adults - Fiona especially.

      The Christmas scene where Fiona eggs on her friend to yell at Will was so infuriating. Yes the friend (can't remember her name) has every right to be angry at Will (he did lie about having a son afterall) but why does that mean she has the right to do it in front of EVERYONE, and Will equally has the right to walk the hell out of there because who wants to be yelled at in front of a bunch of strangers?

      Ugh, adults.

      There isn't the same focus on Joni Mitchell as with Nirvana, more of a "what music do you like" "Joni Mitchell" kinda thing - but yeah, kid loooves Joni. Smart kid.

  2. Ah yes, another book ruined by Hugh Grant and his sassy side eye. I'm going to go ahead and say it's all his fault that you didn't entirely love this book. Way to go, Hugh. And you're right about Fiona - she's a rotten mom outside the mental health issues, I think. But I loved the Nirvana girl, whatever her name was.

    Now I want to reread this, too! It's been so long that the movie's mostly taken over what I remember of the book. I wonder if I'll like it as much any more. Quick! Read Juliet, Naked before they make it into a movie!

    Thank you for the link! Name twins, whut whut.

    1. I'm so glad I'm not the only one who felt like that about Fiona - I really thought I'd get a bunch of "but-but-but" comments about it!

      Nirvana Girl (Ellie? I should remember this, I only finished it last week!) was great, but holy cow was she a mixed bag of horrible problems! But she helped bring Marcus out of her shell, and for that she deserves a medal or a face to face meeting with Kurt Cobain.

      I've read Juliet, Naked and LOVED it - is a movie planned, because it'd probably make a fantastic film, as long as they leave Hugh Grant OUT.

    2. Oh yeah. I knew you'd read it already, even... But! I'm sure they'll make it into a film. I just imdb'd it and I don't see it as rumoured yet, but A Long Way Down is in post-production! And Toni Collette is playing Maureen! And Pierce Brosnan is Martin Sharp instead of Hugh Grant, which was a close one, I'm sure.

  3. hehe that gif.

    So the only Horby I've read is High Fidelity WHICH IS AMAZING, yet I've never read anything else by him. I've wanted to but all the others I've sort of been "meh" on the story. So I was hoping you'd be more likes YES READ THIS but oh well.

    Also I don't think I've seen the movie. Def not the whole thing, though I do remember some scene where the kid is singing "Shake Ya Ass". Is that from this movie or did I make that up?

    1. This is my fourth Hornby, and probably my least favourite? High Fidelity is unbelievable (and in desperate need of a re-read), Juliet, Naked was a great find and I really liked it and A Long Way Down was an interesting read. So read those (besides H.F unless you're after an awesome re-read)!

      It's been so long since I've seen the film but yep, I have memories of little boy Nicholas Hoult singing a very awkward version of Shake Ya Ass as well. So I don't think you're making it up...maybe...

    2. Excellent, now I have other Hornby to try. You know, unless I decide to just keep re-reading HF. And keep re-watching the movie.

    3. Always re-read and re-watch High Fidelity. Scientists have proven that it's integral to leading a long, awesome life.

  4. Now I'm all torn, because I'm fairly sure I read About a Boy ages ago when it was first published, and of course I really liked because who doesn't like Nick Hornby? Nobody I want to know! But then the movie came out, and interestingly I just re-watched the movie, like, two nights ago and I fell in love with those characters.

    In the film the boy was more obsessed with Roberta Flack than with Joni Mitchell, and I'm sad that I don't remember the Joni Mitchell-ness of the book.

    But that moment with Hugh Grant in Love Actually is my favorite part of the movie--i always love when there are goofy song or dance moments in films.

    And yes, Nicholas Hoult (just learned who he is yesterday as an "adult") sings Shake Ya Ass in the movie, and he sings it to the girl who goes on to play TONKS in the harry potter films. I kept looking at her thinking, "huh, you look familiar" and when i watched the credits i realized it. Just to bring it all back to HP, which is the Alpha and the Omega.


      Clearly I need to re-watch the film now!

      I actually love that dancing scene with Hugh Grant, but it's one of the few moments I've not wanted to slap him across the face. He just comes across as such a skeeze to me.

  5. I've read a few Nick Hornby's, including this one, wouldn't have recommended it as your first though- I love High Fidelity, but if you've seen the film you may have similar problems to the ones you had with About a Boy.

    The books from his Believer columns are good too, they're like his own little book blog, my wishlist grew so much from reading The Complete Polysyllabic Spree.

    1. This was actually my 4th Hornby, and my least favourite so far - not that it's bad, just not as great as the other three.

      I've been meaning to get into his non-fiction, The Complete Polysyllabic Spree has been eyeing me from the book store shelf for years now, so it's good to get a rec!

    2. Not sure where I got the idea of it being your first from! Which one would you say has been your favourite (I have A Long Way Down waiting on my kindle, but haven't actually heard anyone talking about it)



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