The narrator of Robert Graham‘s The Former Boy Wonder is so relatably raw that I almost forgot that I was reading a fiction novel.
It’s also somewhat of a fantasy… but not in the way you’d think, though I’ll get to that later.
We first meet Pete as a young, unnamed boy who’s obsessed with superheroes and his father. But then, it becomes clear that dear ol’ dad isn’t quite who Pete wants him, or needs him to be. Perhaps that’s what sets him up for his crisis later in life, the main focus of the book. The crisis around his first love: Sanchia.
We next meet Pete as he’s nearing fifty, down on his luck in the work department–music journalism just isn’t the same as before–and feeling unfulfilled at home. His son more or less ignores him and his wife is somewhat distant… but perhaps it isn’t that she’s drifting like he suspects.
Perhaps, instead, she senses that he’s restless. That he’s hung up on his first love. The same first love who spoke down to her when they were all at university together. Now, why, you may ask, is an almost-fifty year old man thinking about a relationship from half a lifetime ago? Because another one of their uni friends is having a birthday and simply everyone is invited. Maybe. Even. Sanchia.
Will Pete and Sanchia reunite? Will Pete and his family get it together and be a family? Will Pete get some sort of interesting work after this super long dry spell?? These are the questions that kept me reading, and that make this a fairly interesting story.
That said, I have to admit that Pete annoyed the heck out of me for a good chunk of the book. Of course, it’s one of those things that’s easy to see as a real-life third party looking on at a fictional character. I was telling Pete to forget about Sanchia the way you would yell at a girl in a scary movie to not go outside the house alone. It’s different when you’re in the middle of those feels–I’m sure most of us have had a breakup that just takes forever to move on from. That’s where Pete’s at… it just was delayed after twenty-some years.
But it’s in this vulnerable, relatable(ish) space that I think Graham makes the most impact in this story. You want Pete to learn, you want Pete to see what he has and appreciate it. You want Pete to stop pining and start trying to make a difference. That’s what makes the book so interesting, because you want to know why he’s in this weird, fantasy place–gotta love flashbacks for explaining things–and you’re rooting for him to get out of it.
And I love the way it happens. Of course, you’re cringing for a good chunk of his realization phase because he literally has to be slapped in the face with the knowledge. But it’s interesting nonetheless. I don’t know about you, but I always find it fascinating when it’s revealed that thing X didn’t actually go down the way the character thought it did. I can’t say it’s a “unique” technique (I can think of two other stories that’ve used that in the past two months) but it’s always entertaining to me. Perhaps it’s that slightly nerdy side of me that’s interested in psychology and the idea that memories can be fallible. Regardless, that revelation just made the story so interesting, it was a nice little twist.
So, I’d say that I like this book most for the way it presents the “child with parental-baggage grows up and, after a lot of effort, saves other relationships” trope. I enjoyed the use of flashbacks, I thought the dialogue and characters were interesting, and I really liked Graham’s voice: he’s funny and descriptive and had a very authentic vibe.
I do think the beginning was a little slow to start–this is longer than most of my recent books, being longer than 300 pages. There were also a few characters who were introduced so quickly that when they came back later I wasn’t entirely sure who they were. So while it was an entertaining read, there were definitely a few times where I almost sped-read because I wanted the answers to my questions listed above.
I’d say that if you like contemporary fiction, coming-of-age stories, books that focus on character relationships, then this is definitely one worth checking out.
That’s all I’ve got for now! Thanks again to Isabelle Kenyon for reaching out to me about Graham’s book and for next week’s too: Richard Doyle‘s Machine Journey.