Sunday, August 12, 2007

Book Review: Man and Boy

August 12, 2007

“You should never underestimate the power of the nuclear family. These days, coming from an unbroken home is like having independent means, or Paul Newman eyes… . It’s one of life’s true blessings, given to just a lucky few.”
--Harry, in Man and Boy

What a sad book. The story goes that Harry, facing 30 (thirty, for goodness sake! Couldn’t he at least have been facing 50?), has somewhat of a midlife crisis leading to a shiny new car and a one-night stand. So, surprise, his wife leaves him and wants custody of their son, but first she wants to try out a career in Japan. So ensues her finding someone else, him finding someone else, and a fight for custody.

At times I had a hard time grasping this book—relating to the characters—because the lives depicted here are lives I choose not to lead. I learn much from books like Hosseini’s Kite Runner, where culture and circumstances create powerful characters who face moral dilemmas and who strive merely to survive. I enjoy novels like The Time Traveler's Wife and The Thirteenth Tale that let me suspend my disbelief for awhile.

But characters like Harry in Man and Boy cause me to take a “Don’t be a whiner” attitude. I couldn’t really identify with the characters, yet I felt that I should because they were of my generation. For one, they were British. Nothing against the British, I just don’t always get British. For another, they swore constantly. And they lacked a moral compass (“oops, I guess I shouldn’t have had that one-night stand”). I understand that Harry is a flawed person. I understand that part of the point of the novel is that he is searching for identity and redemption and comes a step closer to redeeming himself because he is a good father and a good son. It’s just that everything in the novel happened too quickly with Harry. He had an affair, his wife left him, they both found new love in 4 months time. Maybe that’s how the world really works, but it didn’t ring true for me.

But a few things save this novel. Parsons’ writing is very good. And Harry’s love and expression for his son is beautiful and very, very real. I appreciate that Parsons explores the importance of the intact family and the havoc today’s selfish parents are wreaking upon their children. As Harry says, “Sorry about the collapse of the modern marriage. Sorry that adults these days are so self-centered and dumb that we can’t even manage to bring up our own children. Sorry that the world is so messed up that we think about our sons and daughters about as deeply as the average barnyard animal.” Also, crucial to the novel is Harry’s relationship with his father and his father himself, and this part of the story was wonderful. While others fall flat, Harry’s father is a richly drawn character.

There is a sequel to this novel called Man and Wife, and I won’t be reading it, because I find that I don’t really care, ultimately, what happens to Harry.

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