Details: (c) Nick Hornby 1998; Pub Penguin Books 2002; ISBN 0-141-00733-8
Verdict: About a boy is rather superficial but there's some quite nice characterization.
Reasons for reading it: I felt I should probably read the archetypal lad lit novel at some point, just as a zeitgeist thing. And I needed something extremely unchallenging for the train journey from Dundee since I'd had no sleep the night before. Once I ran out of About a boy I found myself too tired to cope with anything else, so I ended up very bored for the rest of the journey!
How it came into my hands: Dundee charity shops.
About a Boy has spawned a genre and it does have most of the faults of the genre. The hero, Will, is short of redeeming features even though he's drawn very sympathetically. Another feature which in my limited exposure seems to be typical is that he ends up with a woman far too good for him; I can't think of many equivalents in novels marketed at women, except possibly Bridget Jones. Still, he is very nicely drawn and I did feel engaged with him despite his very annoying traits.
Despite the fact that Will as the viewpoint character is utterly insensitive and self-absorbed, AaB is intensely sentimental. The success of the novel on an emotional level is rather patchy; some of it I did find moving, whereas some is just melodramatic and too blatant to be convincing. The contrast between the genuine hardship of Marcus and Fiona with Will's callousness about other people's problems and whining about his own trivial ones does work rather well on the whole.
I didn't find AaB particularly amusing; I could see where it was trying to be funny, but the humour is too unkind to appeal to me. This does mean there's less dilution of the serious / sentimental parts of the book for me. It's also rather too self-consciously topical, which is annoying anyway and makes the book dated by now.
AaB has a surprisingly heavy-handed moral tone. The "message" seems to be that people need a network of friends and that it's a mistake to invest everything emotionally into a romantic relationship. That's an angle I rather like and AaB makes a rather nice job of demonstrating this, though it does sometimes veer into being directly preachy; it's not necessary to put an explanation of this conclusion into Marcus' actual voice.
However, the appeal of this conclusion is really spoilt by the other part of the message, which is basically "conform – consume – obey". I was really annoyed by the way Marcus is convinced to give up thinking for himself and start behaving like a typical teenager, completely absorbed by the herd mentality of following the fashions and rejecting any intellectual or mature approaches. The worst is that this is treated as a happy ending for him. Ugh.
This is particularly a pity as Marcus' and Ellie's experiences of being unpopular teenagers are portrayed really poignantly. Although AaB is partially mocking them, they are extremely well characterized and in many ways more engaging than Will himself. Having them grow into friendship and start to develop as people is lovely, and exceedingly well done. But the way they turn into sheeple so they will be more accepted by their moronic classmates is just depressing.