Book Review: The Boy
by Lara Santoro
Little, Brown, 2013
One day Aly, the 35-year-old main character in Dianne Highbridge’s finely felt 1998 novel A Much Younger Man, seems to see Tom, the 15-year-old son of her best friend, with new eyes. Against all her personal and professional judgement (Aly is a schoolteacher), she conceives an erotic passion for the young man – and he very much reciprocates. Tom is mature (and strapping) for his age, and Aly is – she’s somewhat surprised to realize – intensely lonely, and soon they’re physically and emotionally inseparable … a bond that’s put under enormous unexpected pressure in the book’s third act through a sudden and near-fatal roadway accident.
Despite the consternation and outrage of Aly’s friends, readers of Highbridge’s novel are not invited to condemn the relationship between a grown woman and a boy – and back in 1998, this was seen by some reviewers as a kind of progress, even though with the genders reversed, that same 20-year age difference between lovers had been a staple of fiction since Menelaus and Helen.
Jump forward 15 years while keeping 80 percent of the plot the same, and you have Lara Santoro’s new novella, The Boy, in which our main character 40-year-old Anne conceives an erotic passion for Jack, the 20-year-old son of her best friend – a passion he very much reciprocates, and which is put under enormous unexpected pressure in the book’s third act through a sudden and near-fatal roadway accident. Santoro is less daring than Highbridge – her “boy” is a man, and Anne is an alcoholic foreign correspondent and photographer, not a teacher – and also more manipulative (Anne has a sharp-tongued darling little moppet of a daughter, Eva, who must certainly win all emotional-commitment contests), but she’s also a more evocative prose stylist, and a more dramatic one. A Much Younger Man is a sensitive and intelligently-wrought little meditation on the power of love; The Boy is the literary equivalent of the moment when the attractive stranger standing next to you in the hotel elevator waits until the moment the door has closed and then plants you against the wall and sloppily kisses you until the car reaches your floor.
In other words, it’s not a particularly refined experience, but you shouldn’t miss it for the world.
Santoro sets her stage with repeated, meticulous care: this is summer in New Mexico, dry and blazingly hot and, as in Shakespeare, pregnant with license:
Summer carries with it both mutiny and slumber. The heat swallows hours, entire midsections of the day, but beneath all that something stirs, something always pulls, a kind of anarchy just below the skin, something to do with the body – what the body might want, what the body might get, should the heat hold.
Anne meets Jack at a summer party, introduced (re-introduced, since she remembers him as a running, playing child) by Jack’s father Richard Strand, a wayward and overly permissive single figure. Jack later confesses to a semi-articulate (and thoroughly unconvincing) resentment of his father, but at the moment all Anne gets from “the boy” is a series of sultry pick-up lines that somehow manage to work. Motivation is not Santoro’s strongest suit, but one of the motivations she toys with early on is that Anne, a divorced single parent whose loathsome, priggish ex-husband is British (“they have their hearts taken out at birth”) and half a world away, feels trapped in her own adulthood, chained to parenting Eva:
“Look,” she said [to her therapist, of course], sitting back down. “All I want is a break. I have led the life of an indentured servant. I have been reduced in every possible, conceivable way to the role of a caregiver. What about me? Who takes care of me? I’m tired, Doctor Roemer. I have been constrained beyond all reasonable parameters, I have been enslaved, shackled like some goddamned convict and I’m tired. I need this. I need it more than words could possibly begin to express.”
Conveniently, Eva leaves to spend some quality time with her father in England, and she’s hardly boarded the plane before Jack is backing a mini-van up Anne’s driveway, moving in his stuff, lounging around in his semi-naked glory, and inciting the resentment of Esperanza, Anne’s live-in nanny, confidant, and Hispanic stereotype (“Eeee!” she says in the book whenever she’s dismayed, and so too will she say “Eeee!” in the movie for which this novella is an extremely earnest audition). All of Anne’s friends learn of the affair, as does Richard Strand (his scenes with Anne are short but among the best in the book), and through it all there are waves and waves of 40-on-20 sex; unlike in Highbridge’s novel, the intoxicant here is from first to last physical; Jack starts out a brooding, arrogant cipher and pretty much remains one until the end. More than one reader will keep expecting Anne to come to her senses and start dating Richard Strand, but it never happens.
What does happen – the aforementioned roadway accident – involves Eva and tightens the book’s final 40 pages to an almost unbearable stripped-down tension that is mercilessly done. In fact, The Boy’s main strength, its immediacy, is prominent on every page, not just those final 40; this is very much a story about the heedless, headlong nature of physical infatuation – and only physical infatuation. When Anne convinces herself that she’s facing an all-or-nothing choice between Jack and Eva, she drops Jack without a second thought or a backward glance, and the reader is not invited to condemn this either.
They might not condemn it – after all, Eva makes the funniest bossy-kid comments! – but they’ll almost certainly feel a little cheated by it, that a boy who ends up being so easily excisable could have created such chaos in the first place. Summer flings can be like that, one surmises.