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Review of "About a Boy"

By Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 1997
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 1st 2001
About a BoyTwelve-year-old Marcus gets annoyed after renting the video Groundhog Day to watch in the evening with his mother. She recently tried to overdose on pills, and Marcus tried hard to find a movie that didn't involve people dying. He was pleased with his choice because the box cover said that Groundhog Day is a light comedy. The plot of the movie involves a man (Bill Murray) who keeps on repeating the same day: each morning he wakes up the calendar has not moved on a day. He becomes so frustrated by this that he kills himself, but of course the still wakes up in the morning to repeat the day, and he kills himself again. Poor Marcus is furious that there was no mention of suicide on the box, and he eventually finds an excuse to turn off the VCR because he imagines his mother doesn't want to be reminded of her recent attempt to end her life.

It's a telling moment in this compassionate novel. His mother's depression means that he has to worry about her, when his own life is hard enough. Apart from the uncertainty over whether his mother will keep on being his mother, he is also being bullied at school, because he wears odd clothes and he sings to himself. He has no friends, and not surprisingly, he is unhappy and unconfident.

The other main protagonist in this novel is thirty-six year old Will. It's harder to empathize with Will, because he is wealthy due to his father's financial success and has no need of a job. He has no responsibilities at all, with no family, no girlfriend, and apparently not much of a life. He normally sits at home and watches TV in the afternoons. It soon becomes clear that there is no substance to his life, and the way people become interesting and likable is through their projects and triumphs over adversity. Will starts to realize this himself, and so he pretends to be a single father with a two-year old child, but he feels very embarrassed when he is found out. But it's through his pretense that his path crosses with Marcus', and Marcus latches on to him. The two of them have much to learn from each other.

Hornby's style is simple and appealing. As in his previous novel High Fidelity, he makes use of the backdrop of London and a strong interest in popular music. It's one of the few novels that makes use of Kurt Cobain's suicide as an event that affects the characters, and Hornby does this in a sensitive way.

Strangely, as with the description of the video Marcus rented, the description of this book on its cover is somewhat deceptive. It looks like it's a mild romantic comedy, and depression and suicide aren't mentioned at all. What raises Hornby above his British peers who also write about relationship worries of young white Londoners is his lightness of touch about the seriousness of life. He deals with the meaning of life and the nature of love without pretension or fanfare, which makes his work especially rewarding.