BOYS, by Katie Hafner
Katie Hafner’s first and most exciting debut is a story of many people. It’s an escapism trip, a family game, a human lesson, a talk about cancer isolation and an amazing journey back to the center. We are emerging from a period of intense introversion, and “The Boys” provides the perfect antidote. For anyone who worries about leaving home or traveling abroad or re-entering the world, you will find, like me, a kindred spirit in Ethan Fawcett.
Ethan is a socially awkward man who has created a comfortable, stable, visible life with his wife Barb. He was a brilliant computer programmer who had perfect pitch and was the kind of lovable brainiac who knew the length of every song on a jukebox.
When Etana was 8 years old, his parents died while on vacation in Hawaii and from then on, he was raised by his grandparents. This tragic past is no secret; was left by Ethan in the first pages of “The Boys.” From the breeze of Hafner’s prose to the approachability of Ethan’s voice, the reader is lulled into a sense of security, believing that Ethan has dealt with the problems of his childhood, found his strength and live on Barb, and avoid midlife issues with parenting confidence. In a story as crafted as this one, I really expected Ethan’s worldview to be shaken up – but no amount of preparation could have prepared me for what Hafner had up his sleeve. . (Hafner has been on staff at The New York Times for 10 years.)
The idea seems like a mystery. The prologue is a letter from the head of a mountain biking tour company, Hill and Dale Adventures, asking Mr. for your own needs.
What inspired that letter? What did Ethan do? There are two car tours in the book, through the boutique company. The first was a honeymoon gift from Barb’s parents – a week-long bicycle tour in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. Travel is memorable and empowering; Ethan realized, perhaps for the first time in his sober life, that yes, he could enjoy himself on vacation, because wherever Barb led, she would follow. After this happy time, they return home to Mike the Cat, who suddenly dies. This loss makes Barb wonder if they should expand their family.
Enter the boys: Tommy and Sam, twins who always wear overalls, whom Barb and Ethan decide to adopt as a test case. The brothers are Russian, picky eaters, allergy-prone and can’t speak English – and, as Ethan soon discovers, with a penchant for protection. He becomes a father, a teacher, a playmate, a cook, a doctor, a guardian angel and a comforter. Ethan openly admits to being the planner, buying plane tickets early to ensure a full row for him and the boys, packing the boys’ frozen meals in Ziploc bags, referring to parenting books.
With wit and charm, Hafner opens up all the ways in which Ethan will be tested as Spock. Tommy and Sam were Ethan’s age when he lost his parents. Ethan is quickly approaching his father’s age when he died. The disease hit and this golden time to shelter somewhere, the boys’ daily education, food and feeding became Ethan’s priority. He read the boys “Anna Karenina,” then “for a healthy dose of American history,” moved on to “Gone With the Wind.” It’s a fun and thoughtful first-time parenting experience, until Ethan sets hard and tough boundaries that make Barb make the difficult choice to leave.
At first, I didn’t know how to deal with Barb’s decision to leave her family. As a new mom, what is it like to leave the family? Thankfully I didn’t doubt him for long. Barb is a research scientist researching the effects of loneliness on older adults and social isolation; Unknowingly, her biggest affair has become her middle husband, who not only has a unique way of digging into her loneliness and depression.
It is surprising at the center of this book, because it is so real and different that I stopped moving forward for a day to re-read the first part and look at the inconsistency. Hafner is not innocent. In true Ethan fashion, the story from his perspective meets new standards. When Ethan and the boys go on a second road trip – this time without Barb – the story cleverly shifts to the experience of Izzy, a business leader assigned to difficult clients. very. Despite Ethan’s strong requests – for example, the boys can’t get wet – Izzy, a different person, manages to attract Ethan. Tommy and Sam don’t have children that I’ve read or seen, but the big question is, why are they so special to Ethan? Ethan is missing. He is sad and trying to build human relationships through the only ways he can understand. We’ve all been there now, haven’t we – we’ve experienced isolation where we can leave others and ourselves?
In the hands of a lesser writer, the heartwarming family comedy-saga could have fizzled, but Hafner is in full control throughout. I can’t say more without giving the story away, so I’ll just say this: The story is amazing. I will be thinking about these boys for a long time to come.
Weike Wang’s latest book is “Joan Is Okay.”
CHILDREN, by Katie Hafner | 245 pp. | Spiegel & Gray | $27