Review: Wonder Boys

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon was a little bit of a surprise for me, mostly because the other Chabon I’ve picked up in the past (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) wasn’t really all that great, which apparently is an incredibly rare opinion to hold in the blogging community, hehe. But, unlike Kavalier and Clay, something about Chabon’s mostly terse, occasionally achingly flowering prose seems to lend itself incredibly well to the novel.

The story follows Grady Tripp, an aging and pot-addicted professor who’s been working on his book, ‘Wonder Boys’ for the past seven years. His college is hosting a writing conference the weekend the book takes place, and his publisher is coming to visit. So, added to Grady’s mental pressures about finishing his failing book is the pressure to save his dissolving marriage and quickly-complicating relationship with his mistress, the dean of the college. His editor, Crabtree, shows up with a transvestite, and it soon comes out that his sexuality is not quick to be easily defined. The other main characters of the novel are Grady’s students James Leer and Hannah Green. James is a tortured boy who writes broken and confusing prose who spends most of the book trying to hide his suburban-boy roots. Hannah is a young writer who always wears red cowboy boots, lives in Grady’s basement, and idolizes him until she reads his book and realizes that perhaps too much time and to much pot has turned her hero into a surprise failure.

The characters are the best aspect of the book, to be sure, but Chabon makes a number of interesting plot twists that keep the book moving forward, and, to be honest, this has been one of the first books I’ve read in a while that actually kept me WANTING to read, made me sad at night when I had to put it down, and at the same time, kept me dreading the day when the book would end. Add to that the incredibly poetic, incredibly sad ending of the first story arc that really sets Grady free and the book carries an almost ghost-like weight, something touching and meaningful and still surprisingly happy. It’s satisfaction, but its a kind of conflicted satisfaction. I can’t recommend the book enough, and I’m tempted to go back and read Chabon’s first book, especially knowing that I don’t exactly fancy his later work.

Also, if you’re interested, there’s a pretty good film adaptation starring Michael Douglas, Toby McGuire, and Robert Downey Jr. that is rather remarkable, if lacking some of the fire that the characters in print have. Douglass does a good job portraying Grady’s detachment from his own life, although this may be more due to the voiceover narration done by Douglass through the entirety of the film. I thought that Katie Holmes (yep, back before she made Tom Cruise do his jumping up and down and she basically morphed into the American Posh Spice) did an okay job with the Hannah character, although in the book she seemed to have a little bit more…adoration of Grady rather than just a romantic attachment, which is how Holmes chooses to play it. And, of course, Robert Downey Jr. is amazing. Then again, I WILL WATCH ROBERT DOWNEY JR. IN ANYTHING AT ALL. I AM IN LOVE WITH HIM.

This weekend I’m hoping to knock out The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, as well as The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, which is just such a fun book, and was one of my favorites as a kid, so I can’t wait to throw myself back into it! Happy reading!

“After a few years of unhappy and often depraved existence, I landed, again in the classic manner, in California, where I fell in love with a philosophy major at Berkeley who persuaded me not to waste in wandering what, she called, with an air or utter, soul-enveloping conviction that has since led to great mystery and that I have never for one instant forgotten, my gift.” – 18

The midnight disease is a kind of emotional insomnia; at ever conscious moments its victim – even if he or she writes at dawn, or the middle of the afternoon – feels like a person lying in a sweltering bedroom, with the window thrown open, looking up at a sky filled with stars and airplanes, listening to the narrative of a rattling blind, an ambulance, a fly trapped in a coke bottle, while all around him the neighbors sleep soundly. This is in my opinion why writers – like insomniacs – are so accident-prone, so obsessed with the calculus of missed opportunities, so liable to rumination and a concomitant inability to let go of a subject, even when urged repeatedly to do so” – 20

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andi
    Feb 23, 2010 @ 16:40:23

    I’ve seen (and liked) the film version, and the book is one I still want to read. Sometimes I poop out on a book if I’ve seen the movie beforehand, but I don’t think so with this one.

    Reply

  2. charley
    Mar 23, 2010 @ 03:35:11

    I’m reading Wonder Boys now and enjoying it so far. Like you, I wasn’t taken with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, so I hope Wonder Boys continues to be a better experience. And I agree about Robert Downey, Jr. – he’s great.

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Review: Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon « Jenny's Books

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