I read #192 Man and Boy by Tony Parsons a couple weeks ago, and my shortest review has to be: like High Fidelity, if he had a kid. As you may remember, I didn’t love High Fidelity and didn’t much care for Man and Boy either, although it was easy reading.
Harry Silver is turning 30, and seems to have the perfect life, the one he always aimed for. He’s successful at work, married to a lovely woman (who has given up her dreams in favour of supporting his career and raising their child), has a lovely boy, a house with a shrinking mortgage and enough money to spend some on daft things, like a 2-seater car when he is part of a 3-person family. Naturally he has to screw up, ruin it all and spend the rest of the novel looking for a new normal that’s half as good as the old one.
On turning 30
I’ve just done this myself, Big round numbers, like New Year’s Day, are a good opportunity to take stock, and I’d be surprised if there was anyone, anywhere who did that every decade and had nothing left to strive for, no one to miss, nothing done or undone to regret. I do like this quote, from the first chapter:
That’s what thirty should be – grown-up without being disappointed, settled without being complacent, worldly wise, but not so worldly wise you feel like chucking yourself under a train. The time of your life.
Harry is looking back at his life, and is disappointed. He doesn’t feel grown-up enough, exciting enough, rich enough. He definitely doesn’t feel like he’s man enough, and spends most of the novel comparing himself to his father, who fought in WWII and is, in Harry’s eyes, perfect. Harry, who is a first-person narrator, and his father are the best developed characters in the novel. His mother is definitely background, as is Harry’s own wife. His son is a source of joy or a problem, but doesn’t seem to have a second characteristic. (He does like Star Wars though. A lot.)
I didn’t have much sympathy for Harry. Parsons has written an engaging, easy to read book with a good flow, but I thought Harry was self-delusional to the point where his rude awakening was long overdue. I also didn’t quite believe the timeline – I thought he was too young at 30 to be where he’s described as being, if you see what I mean. Unless, that is, being a TV producer on a made-for-cable show pays phenomenally well, which I can’t imagine it does, or house prices have tripled since 1999. Most of my contemporaries are working on one of the major life projects he’s got all settled (dazzling career, mortgage, family) with or without a partner, and I certainly haven’t got it all figured out. Harry, incidentally, must have been on track in his career and married by about 25, which is just 2-3 years out of uni, as he has a 4-year old at 30 and met his wife at work.
So Harry has something rather good going on, and then it all collapses, as he does the one thing his wife cannot forgive. Now, despite the laundry list of perfection, I don’t get the impression that either Harry or Gina (his wife) were very happy. Gina, particularly, has given up her dreams of travel and an exciting career (she was trained as a Japanese translator) in favour of staying home and looking after their son full-time. As she’s not happy, I can see Gina’s looking for a shake up, having just turned 30 herself. However, both Harry and Gina seem hasty with the eject button on their relationship. For Gina, there seems to be no middle ground between ‘no work outside the home’ and ‘living in Japan’. I’m pretty sure there are, in real life and even in London, less extreme options. Harry, likewise, when he’s looking after his son full-time declares himself unable to combine childcare with any work. It’s bizarre. I’m in favour of increased levels of state-sponsored childcare anyway, but as free childcare for the preschool set would have allowed each parent in turn to work part-time, and thus prevented the novel entirely, I’m doubly committed to the cause. And in real life, when the money starts to run out, you step away from your dream job and get a bit of work on the side. Or sell the ridiculous, expensive car. Or rent out the London house and move somewhere cheaper for a bit. Or…
I wanted to like this book, as I think it’s a great that there’s chicklit with male main characters. That the book turns on emotional fulfillment in a very ordinary setting, yet is a favourite, is a good sign. Ultimately though, I thought it was all too convenient and the characters and scenarios were unconvincing.