Tuesday, March 24, 2015

"A Spot of Bother," by Mark Haddon

I picked up Mark Haddon’s book, “A Spot of Bother” (Vintage, 2006) more or less on a whim. Yes, I had heard of his bestselling book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but that book had not particularly appealed to me and I did not read it. This book – “A Spot of Bother” – immediately plunged me into the world of a family that has plenty of problems, yet is very real, very realistic, a little odd, sometimes funny, sometimes maddening, and sometimes touching. I can’t quite say why this family portrait drew me in so quickly and completely, but it did. The story takes place in England, and the family consists of parents George and Jean and their two adult children, Katie and Jamie. George has just retired at the age of 61, and is a bit adrift. He starts having panic attacks about his health and about the fact that everyone dies eventually. Jean loves George, works part-time, and is having an affair with a former colleague of George’s. She is adjusting to having George home most of the time, something she is not used to. Although it sounds racy that Jean is having an affair, she is a down-to-earth woman and a loving wife and mother. Daughter Katie is divorced, with a young son, Jacob, and a fiancĂ©, Ray. George and Jean don’t think Ray is good enough for Katie, and she occasionally has doubts herself, although she is grateful for his love, kindness, help with Jacob, and financial solidity. Jamie is a real estate agent, gay, in a relationship with Tony, but there is a lack of commitment in that relationship. So the threads throughout the novel, the sources of suspense, are the questions of what will happen to George, whether Katie and Ray’s wedding will take place, and what will happen with Jamie’s and Tony’s relationship. The author skillfully manages these plot threads, and we gradually get to know each character quite well, and pull for them all, despite some perhaps reprehensible behavior on the part of each. The portrayal of George is particularly powerful, as he embodies the fears of many aging men (and women), and his apparent irrationality at times has at its core some very realistic and universal fears. The portrayal of Jean is strong too, because it shows how a woman of her age and situation might feel, and how feeling desired again (by her lover, David) conflicts with – but she wishes it didn’t – her loyalty to, and love of, George. This novel is both a little off-kilter and very believable. My only two quibbles are that George is treated as “old” at age 61, and that his obviously serious psychological problems are not taken as seriously by anyone, even the author, as the symptoms indicate they should be, in my opinion. But overall “A Spot of Bother” is artfully constructed, skillfully written, and satisfying to read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
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