Book Review: The Former Boy Wonder

“Even though I know I shouldn’t, even though the last time I did this I swore I never would again, I get up and go to look for the past”

The Former Boy Wonder, by Robert Graham, tells the story of a man going through a midlife crisis. It is narrated by Peter Duffy, who is approaching his fiftieth birthday. His once glittering and lucrative career as an Access All Areas music writer is on the wane with interested readers turning to blogs and similar free internet content rather than paying for specialist magazines. Peter’s marriage to Lucy has turned stale. Their teenage son regards his father with resigned contempt, considering him an idiot. Given the tale being told, the boy’s summation is hard to disagree with.

The story opens in the 1970s. Peter’s father, a professional comedian who becomes a renowned television personality, leaves the family home in Bangor, Northern Ireland, for London following another row with his wife. Peter adored his father but the schism created by his leaving proves hard to heal. Peter romanticises events in his life, viewing the past through a prism coloured by his beloved comic books, fiction and film. His dealings with other people focus on how their behaviour affects him. He assigns blame with little consideration for any role he might have played, or how he may have chosen to react differently.

“I had been the little prince, the apple of my father’s eye, and then he left. The little prince had lost his kingdom; he had been a happy little boy before it all went wrong.”

Peter leaves Bangor to study at the Poly in Manchester. Here he makes friends he will remain close to for decades – Lucy, Bill and Caitlin. At the latter’s twenty-first birthday party he encounters a student from the University, Sanchia Page, who will become his first true love.

The narrative shifts between this younger Peter as he navigates an all consuming love affair and the older Peter looking back on a time he has gilded. Although he wants to make his marriage to Lucy work, acknowledging her many positive attributes, he hankers after the passion he remembers with Sanchia. When Caitlin invites Peter to her fiftieth birthday party he cannot stop wondering if Sanchia will be there – and what that could possibly mean for his future, and hers.

Although the older Peter’s career has stagnated, Lucy remains a successful businesswoman. She is organised, efficient and likes to keep her house pristine, something her husband both admires and struggles with.

“Someday she’s going to fold me up, shove me into a cupboard, slam the door shut and lean against it until I’m restrained.
I wrest myself away from contemplating our clinical surroundings and the fun I haven’t been having”

Nevertheless, Lucy remains encouraging and supportive, until she realises Peter has been fantasising about Sanchia again. Peter is a man who has achieved everything that matters, yet properly appreciates none of it. He wants the life he had – or at least how he remembers it – over what he has now and could still achieve.

A strong sense of period and place is threaded through the story – the housing, nightlife and gentrification of both Manchester and London; the impact of this on a boy from Bangor. The popular music of Peter’s youth adds to the atmosphere, especially that which has stood the test of time. The author includes detailed descriptions of clothes, especially as worn by the women. While I would usually find this unnecessary, even irksome, here it adds to the evocative scene setting on which the story is built.

I struggled to warm to Peter, a man so obviously self engrossed and self entitled I wondered how Lucy had stuck with him (this does become clear later). Perhaps because of this it took some time to fully engage. Once I did, the slow motion car crash of Peter’s life held me in its thrall despite his continuing foolish behaviour.

A slow burn of a story then but one that is well worth sticking with, not least because of Lucy’s development. A reminder of how gloriously painful it is to be young and eager, but that fifty can also be memorable if lived in the present and with the right mindset.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lendal Press.

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