Tuesday, August 19, 2008

About a Boy – Nick Hornby

This is one of my favourite films ever, so I’ve been curious for a while for how the book would compare. It’s inevitable that when you watch the film first you see all the characters as they were in the film; but fortunately in this case the characters in the film seem pretty close to the book so there were no nasty shocks. It was interesting to see where the film had taking things from the book, and where it had gone its own way. There were places where dialogue had been shifted from one character to another, which was particularly interesting.

The two diverged more as the book went on, so that you miss out on the brilliant scene at the school concert. That said, the book instead has this striking trip of Marcus and Ellie to Cambridge the day that Kurt Cobain kills himself (Ellie in the book is a huge Nirvana fan).

There’s probably more in the book of Marcus and Ellie, which is good. There is a really good commentary on Ellie’s need to rebel and feel angst which ends up being largely manufactured. The relationship between Will and Rachel is different too, and perhaps because of that, Will doesn’t have the epiphany he has in the film. Ah, so Hollywood, isn’t it?

Another thing the book brings out which the film doesn’t is the real root of Fiona’s problems, and in particular, the extent to which Marcus is responsible. This is a good area to touch upon. It’s not just that she’s a single parent; it’s perhaps a more realistic view on what children are like than most of what we are exposed to. I understand Nick Hornby used to be a teacher; he certainly seems to have a teacher’s unromantic and acute observation of the nature of children. I like that.

The book cuts between a chapter of Will’s point of view and a chapter of Marcus’s. This works fairly well, but feels a bit rigid compared to the film – there are some great bits in the film where one person’s voiceover cuts straight to the other’s with comic effect, and while occasionally the book gets this effect by switching chapters and going back, it’s not quite the same.

At the end, I felt that the book reached a slightly different conclusion from the film. The book implies that in order to survive, Marcus has to become a sheep. That’s not my experience; I prefer the Robert Frost view (Two paths diverged in the woods, and I … I took the pass less wandered by; and that has made all the difference). The main conclusion of the film is the brilliantly un-Hollywood idea that “couples aren’t the future” – or at least, aren’t everything. And the wonderful bookending of the film with John Donne (Jon Bon Jovi)’s “No man is an island” isn’t in the book.

Inevitably I’m going to read something like this and compare it to the film. Usually the book wins hands down. In this case I wouldn’t want to say either way, both had good bits the other lacked, and it was definitely worth getting to know both. Definitely the best Nick Hornby book I've read, and by some margin. Great film, good book.


Man and Wife – Tony Parsons

This is the sequel to Man and Boy, which I found disappointing. I actually thought this book was better, mainly because the characters felt more rounded – in particular, the ex-wife is less unremittingly unsympathetic.

The centre of the story in this book is the main character, Harry, running into problems in his relationship with his new wife. This was good, but I thought it raised a couple of questions that could have been explored a bit better. For example, the stresses of work and how that affects the relationship, and perhaps the different assumptions that apply when it’s the wife’s work as opposed to the husband’s work. There were points where I thought surely the characters would talk about this a bit more than they do.

I didn’t entirely believe in the man’s feelings when he was starting – or not quite starting – an affair. It all seemed very matter-of-fact, when I’d have imagined him agonizing a bit more, and probably having to feel more upset (or more enamoured) in the first place. I could sort of understand the reasons why the main character and his wife’s relationship starts to break down, but only sort of. Part of the motivation was jealousy, and I thought perhaps more could have been made of that too, where it comes from and how it affects the relationship.

Another topic the book skirted around was the question of whether an affair is an affair if it doesn’t involve sex. I thought the book could have made a lot more of that.

I was glad to find that the conclusion of the book was more positive than the first. It’s a shame that it takes a bit of a deus-ex-machina to get them back together, but at least they do get back together. I didn’t like the presumption that they needed to have children together in order to be a proper couple. (Worse, it’s reinforced by comparison with two other couples who are struggling to have children together).

I also thought it was interesting that a couple of fairly major story threads – his mum’s breast cancer, and his career – are not resolved. Ok, things don’t get neatly tied up in real life, but I’d have thought that in a book you either have to resolve them or at least somehow show that people are living with things as they are. Maybe Parsons was planning another sequel?


Monday, August 11, 2008

Can You Keep A Secret? – Sophie Kinsella

I borrowed this from a friend, who was introduced to the author – or at least her Shopaholic series – by her brother. That’s right, I’m not the only bloke in the world that reads chic lit and enjoys it.

I’ve not read any of her stuff before, but I really enjoyed this. I particularly liked the male character, Jack, who – for once – I could really sympathise with. Yes, he’s rich and handsome, of course, but he has emotional depth: he’s been a recluse for four years since his business partner and best friend died, and when he comes back, he barely recognizes the business in which he made his name.

What else did I like about this? It’s funny. There are some great comic moments (Jack’s brutal exposure of protagonist Emma’s show-off perfect cousin is brilliant), some comic characters (the increasingly psychotic posh flatmate Jemima) and some drop-dead embarrassment moments, which nonetheless manage to be funny rather than just painful (Alan Partridge this is not).

I also liked the fact that there was a hint of realism in what the relationship between an office junior and a millionaire CEO would look like. They live in different worlds, and the novel gives a taste of that.

I like the fact that as the book goes on, Emma too reveals hidden depths. Okay, she lied about getting a C in her maths GCSE (which isn’t much of a qualification these days) and has no idea what NATO stands for, but as a marketing trainee it turns out she has real potential precisely because she’s real and unpretentious (but not unaware of the world around her). That also means that she and Jack have a real reason to relate to each other rather than just because the story needs them to.

Ok, as with pretty much any book these days it’s not particularly in tune with my ideas on sex. I suppose these days it’s something that Emma actually goes out with Jack twice before they sleep together, and that she is sensible / realistic enough to take condoms on her hot date; but it would be nice to get away from the cliché that all relationships automatically start with lots of great sex.

But the real message of this book for me is that opening yourself to other people and letting them into your secrets maybe isn’t such a disaster as it might seem. I can agree with that.

Fun, funny, but not brainless.