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About a Boy

In About a Boy (1998), British novelist Nick Hornby perfectly succeeds in rendering the thoughts and feelings of twelve year-old Marcus, who feels displaced and lonely in several ways. Looking for a friend - a real friend - , he thinks he has found one in 36 year-old Will Freeman, and subsequently sets out to make all sorts of plans and schemes revolving around Will. In the end - less than a year later - , both Marcus and Will have matured, each in his own particular way. What is more, the two are going to stick together: Marcus, who was originally looking for a stepfather[?], has realized that it could never be Will, but that life goes on and that it may bring pleasant surprises any moment; and Will has realized that you can live a carefree life, bring joy to others and be happy yourself at the same time. The root of all the trouble is a classic dysfunctional[?] family of the 1990s.

Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

Fiona and Clive live together in Cambridge, England but never get married. On 19 August 1981 their son Marcus is born. At one point in their relationship more than ten years later - some time before the action of the novel starts - , Clive walks out on Fiona and their son Marcus. He soon finds a new girlfriend called Lindsey. Only too late - towards the end of the novel - does he realize that he should not have abandoned his partner and son: Lindsey always seems to be in the company of her mother, and, what is more, she wants a child whereas Clive is not really prepared to start all over again.

After the split-up, Fiona tries to manage her and her son's lives as well as possible, but the typical phenomena prevalent in dysfunctional families very soon emerge:

  • Mother and son are rather poor. Fiona works as a music therapist[?], but her income seems to be limited.

  • To improve her chances on the career market, 38 year-old Fiona embarks on a course of study with the Open University.

  • To get away from the things that remind her of her earlier life (and probably also to meet new people and to increase her job prospects, they move from Cambridge to Islington in London.

  • Fiona has a succession of boyfriends, but none of these relationships (or rather flings) proves satisfactory.

  • Unwillingly, Fiona is rather dictatorial when it comes to deciding what is good for her and her son and what is not. For example, they live as vegetarians, "they" decide that they are not going to be slaves to fashion, "they" deliberately listen only to classical music, etc. It may be understandable to want to try to set oneself apart from the rest of the crowd, but in Fiona's (and, consequently, Marcus's) case this tendency only increases their distance from, and incompatibility with, others.

  • Marcus cannot really make friends at his new school, neither among his schoolmates nor among his teachers. He is considered, and considers himself, a weirdo: His hair is too long - not according to the current fashion - , his clothes and glasses are old-fashioned (deliberately, as far as his mother is concerned), his likes and dislikes, for example his taste in music, eccentric. Also, he is not good at, or even passively interested in, football.

  • Eventually, depression sets in. Marcus is quite good at bearing all the hardships life has in store for him but his mother cannot cope any longer. She takes to crying again and again without any obvious reason, and Marcus feels completely helpless: All he can do is watch his mother lose her composure.

The action of the novel starts in the autumn of 1993, shortly after the beginning of the new schoolyear. In the first chapters of the novel the family situation described above is sharply contrasted with that of Will Freeman (speaking name!). He is alone, but he is not lonely. He has got a stepbrother and a stepsister, but he does not keep in touch with them. His mother is dead, and so is his father, Charles Freeman, who, in 1938, wrote a novelty Christmas hit song entitled "Santa's Super Sleigh" and then stopped working and lived off the royalties[?]. Ever since he left school, Will has been keeping up the family tradition of doing nothing substantial. On the one hand, he shuns any form of responsibility. On the other hand, he is not a burden to anyone either: He just lives from one day to the next, cherishing his carefree existence without wanting to change anything. His interests are pop music (in particular Nirvana and their singer, Kurt Cobain), cruising round London in his car (with the music on of course), going to the cinema, going shopping (mostly CDs and trendy clothes), watching TV (game shows, soaps, whatever), reading glossy magazines, getting drunk and/or stoned on soft drugs such as magic mushrooms[?]", and chatting up and eventually going to bed with pretty girls. Will is appalled at how many of his friends have changed their lifestyles: For example, his old friends John and Christine have just had their second child so that just having a pint at the pub round the corner with them now constitutes a major problem. After Barney, who is now two, Imogen has just been born, and when their parents ask Will to be Imogen's godfather[?] he vehemently refuses, what with having to adopt Imogen if her parents die in an accident and so on. Also, Will's ex-girlfriend Jessica, who is now a young mother, keeps telling him what he is missing and that he should become a parent, too. Will cannot understand what this is all about: The art of parenting[?] is not his cup of tea.

Will's and Marcus's paths cross when Will happens to make the acquaintance of Angie, a single mother: Although his relationship to Angie and her two children does not work out fine, it occurs to Will that single mums can be sexy and - more importantly - sexually starved; that "temporary parenthood" might just be the right thing to add some spice to his life. As a consequence, he reinvents himself as a single father and joins SPAT (Single Parents - Alone Together). He is absolutely positive that no complications whatsoever will arise, but already during their first meeting it turns out that the women in the group ask him detailed questions about his life and his son - two year-old Ned - , ask him why he is not here, and call his (imaginary) ex a bitch. It is in particular Suzie whom he fancies, but his feeling is not reciprocated. As it happens, Suzie is Fiona's best friend, and one Saturday afternoon, when Fiona wants to be alone, Suzie takes Marcus along with her to a SPAT picnic in Regent's Park. This is how Marcus and Will meet.

Will joins the picnic even though he cannot produce his "son" Ned, explaining that his ex-wife Paula decided at the very last moment to spend the weekend with him. Up to a point he enjoys, and is also good at, playing with the party of children present, but he does not really get on with Suzie and her two year-old daughter Megan.

In retrospect, Marcus calls that Saturday in the autumn of 1993 "Dead Duck Day": He feeds the ducks swimming in the pond in Regent's Park, throws a baguette at one of them and kills it - at least that is what he thinks. When he gets home - for some reason Will and Suzie are still with him - he finds his mother on the floor of their flat: She has tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose[?]. Fiona is rushed to hospital, and at the end of the day Will sums up the events: "It had all been very interesting, but he wouldn't want to do it every night." On the following day, Marcus finds his mother's suicide note[?] lying on the kitchen table. When she is released again soon afterwards, Marcus is extremely caring, trying to avoid anything which might make his mother think about suicide again, even watching Groundhog Day on video.

There is no way back now for Will though: He realizes that once you get involved in something you have to follow it through, especially if you want to seduce a single mum. He phones Suzie, the woman he really fancies - he is not in the least attracted by Fiona - and asks her if he could help Fiona in any way, for example by taking Marcus out. But Marcus has slightly different plans, acting as a secret matchmaker: He only wants to come if his mother can come, too, so Will ends up spending a Saturday afternoon with both of them. He goes to great lengths now to make them all believe he really has got a two year-old son: For example, he buys a baby seat for his car and even soils it with crisps so that it does not look new.

Then an amazing thing happens: One day after school Marcus drops in on Will and confronts him with the truth about him never having had a son. From now on, Marcus becomes a frequent visitor at Will's place. Gradually, Will realizes that Marcus is a lonely and desperate boy who is bullied and threatened by some of his schoolmates and who needs a friend rather than a father figure; a kid who needs help to be a kid, not an adult - and this is what Will is much better at supplying. But when he buys him an expensive new pair of Adidas trainers the bad boys at school steal them from Marcus on the very first day he is wearing them. Only then, when he comes home without any shoes on, does Fiona learn from her son that he has been seeing Will on a regular basis. Not surprisingly, she accuses Will of being a child molester[?], especially when she learns from Marcus that he has not got a kid. The ensuing row between Marcus and Fiona culminates in him telling her - just in order to win the argument - that Marcus needs a father.

Christmas is approaching, and already in mid-November Will hears "Santa's Super Sleigh" being sung by a street busker[?]. A few days later Fiona rings him and tells him that Marcus "seems to think he needs adult male company". This leads to Will and Fiona being alone together for the first time in order to have a serious talk, something Marcus does not like at all, for a variety of reasons. Will instinctively seems to know much better than Marcusīs own mother what is good for the boy and what he needs now. Marcus himself has realized by now that it would not be a good idea if his mother and Will got married; still he would prefer a large, or at least larger, family for the simple reason that, if his mother tried to "top herself" again, there would be more people left who would care for him and who he could turn to for help.

This is the time when Marcus meets, and eventually makes friends with, the most unlikely of all potential chums: Ellie McCrae, a 15 year-old girl from his school who has a reputation of being very bad. At first she makes fun of him ("squitty little shitty snotty bastard"), but later Marcus can team up with her and her friend Zoe. In the weeks that follow, Marcus falls in love with Ellie, and at first wants her to be his girlfriend, but at the end of the novel he has realized that, as far as Ellie and he are concerned, being good friends is a much better option. Ellie, a Nirvana fan (just like Will), opens up new vistas for Marcus, who more than ever before wants to escape from his unconsciously domineering mother. After his first encounter with her, in front of the headmistress's office, Marcus is bold enough to walk out of her office although she says she has not finished with him yet ("I've finished with you."). On the spur of the moment Marcus decides not to go back to his classes again. Rather, he becomes a truant[?], which for him is a very bad thing indeed, comparable to being on skid row[?]. Just as he is walking down the street, doing nothing in particular, Will sees him from his car. On the same day, Marcus drops in on him at exactly 4:15 p.m. - as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened - , but Will is honest with his young friend and tells him that he knows about his "skiving".

Then Marcus invites Will to spend Christmas Day with him and his mum. Originally, Will was considering getting stoned[?] all by himself for three days in a row, but now he is prepared to change his plans. Contrary to Will's belief, some other people are present as well: Marcus's father Clive, the latter's girlfriend Lindsey, and her mum. Later that day, Suzie and her daughter drop by, too. Will enjoys the feeling of community in spite of a certain tension: Suzie cannot really forgive him for having posed as a single father just to be able to chat up single mums, and Clive is severely critized by both Fiona and Lindsey for rolling and smoking a joint in front of the children (although he has done so all the time in the past). As far as the Christmas presents are concerned, Will is appalled by the unattractive gifts Marcus gets from his mum: sheet music, as a not-so-subtle reminder that Marcus gave up learning to play the piano some time ago, and an ugly sweater.

Then, at a New Year's Eve[?] party, Will meets the woman of his dreams, a dark-haired beauty and an illustrator of children's books called Rachel. Suddenly he finds himself completely unattractive, with no assets whatsoever to show off to the woman he has fallen for: no career, no kids, nothing. And so Will once again pretends being a father, this time by making Rachel believe that Marcus is his son, especially when it turns out that Rachel has an illegitimate twelve year-old son called Ali (short for Alistair). At another New Year's Eve party, at Suzie's place, Marcus and Ellie meet again. When he comes to think of it, Marcus realizes that 1993 has not been a good year at all for him and that he should try to improve a lot of things for himself and his mum.

The get-together between Marcus, allegedly Will's son, and Ali at Rachel's place near Camden Lock is a disaster. Ali turns out to be extremely jealous of anyone trying to get close to his mother, and, while Will and Rachel are in the downstairs living room, he actually threatens Marcus with killing him so that Marcus sneaks out of the house in order to take the bus home. However, Will finds him and takes him back to Rachel's for him and Ali to make up. After school on the following Monday one of the bad guys takes away Marcus's glasses, but Ellie is close by, intervenes and helps Marcus get them back again. This makes Marcus love her even more. It is Will who points out to him that, at least as far as traditional gender roles are concerned, it should have been the other way round.

Then Will confesses to Rachel that he is not Marcus's biological father. One would have thought that one could not possibly make this sort of revelation gradually, but Will manages to do so. She does not mind too much though, and they get on perfectly with each other, the only drawback being that, as Will puts it in his thoughts, "sex just isn't in the air".

Towards the end of the novel two unpleasant things happen in quick succession: Firstly, Fiona's psychological state threatens to deteriorate again, the most obvious symptom being that she starts crying again over breakfast. Consequently, Marcus turns to Will, but also to Ellie, for help. Secondly, shortly before Easter 1994, Clive gets injured when he falls off a window-ledge and wants to see his son up in Cambridge. Marcus asks Ellie if she wants to accompany him, and to his surprise she agrees, announcing that she will give his father a piece of her mind. They secretly meet at King's Cross station - Fiona must not know anything about Ellie going with him - when Marcus recognizes a picture of Kurt Cobain on the front page of the dailies: The singer of Nirvana has committed suicide. Marcus does not want Ellie to learn about this, but she already knows.

After having become a truant (which, by the way, nobody seemed to have bothered to notice), the train ride to Cambridge is even more disastrous. 15 year-old Ellie has brought along a bottle of vodka and starts drinking straight from it. For no obvious reason at all, she gets out at Royston[?], with Marcus in tow. Soon they find themselves in front of some record shop, where Ellie, Nirvana's self-appointed greatest fan, sees a Kurt Cobain poster in the shop window. On the spur of the moment she smashes it, saying that it is a shame that people should want to cash in on the death of a pop star by putting such a poster in the window the moment he has died. There is nothing Marcus can do about all this, and a short time later they find themselves at Royston police station phoning their respective parents.

At about the same time Will and Rachel finally have sex together for the first time. Immediately afterwards, Rachel suggests that she, Will and Fiona should go to the pub together in order to help poor Fiona by talking her problems over with her. Will thinks this is a very good idea, but Rachel does not show up at the arranged place and time and, as it turns out afterwards, never had any intention of doing so. This is why Will has to cope alone, and he learns quite a lot about Fiona's depression from her.

When, on the same night, she learns that Marcus has been arrested, she, Will and Ellieīs mother team up and drive to Royston in Hertfordshire. After being released again, Marcus finally continues his journey to Cambridge to have a proper talk with his dad, who, immobilized in his hospital bed, has had a "big think" about the whole family situation. When the novel ends in the summer of 1994, Fiona and Rachel have become friends, and, generally speaking, optimism[?] pervades the air.

About a Boy was filmed in 2002 by Chris Weitz[?] and Paul Weitz[?] starring Nicholas Hoult[?] (b. 1990) as Marcus, Hugh Grant as Will, and Rachel Weisz as Rachel. An interesting aspect of the movie is the use of double voice-over narration, where, at crucial moments in the plot, the audience can follow Will's as well as Marcus's thoughts. On the whole, the screenplay closely follows Hornby's novel. However, the Royston episode was replaced by an unfortunate scene depicting a school concert during which Marcus, to prevent his mother from trying to kill herself again, gives an unsuccessful solo performance of "Killing Me Softly" but is eventually joined by a guitar-playing Will. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana were replaced by rap music.

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