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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

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The story centers on two characters, a middle-aged man named Will Freeman and a young schoolboy named Marcus Brewer. The story is set in London in 1993, which is important because of a number of pop-culture references and links that are important in the development of the story.

Will Freeman is 36 and doesn't have to work because he wrote a popular Christmas song and lives comfortably from the royalties. His life centers around trying to meet women, drinking, and basically goofing off.

After going through a rather pleasant relationship with a single mother, Will latches onto the idea of meeting other single mothers and pretends to have a two year old son so he can go to support meetings where single mothers get together to talk about their difficulties. This is where he meets Marcus and Fiona, Marcus' mother.

Will's emotional walls are hard to break down and it takes some time before he actually begins to enjoy a friendship with Marcus. Eventually Will begins to take a serious interest in Marcus' life and tries to help him become cool by giving him advice about how to dress and how to act so that he can have more friends.

At this point, Marcus' father Clive joins the fray as he visits Marcus and his mother with his new girlfriend during the Christmas holiday. Not long after, he suffers a broken collarbone while trying to fix up his house and starts to re-think the way he has approached his responsibility as Marcus' father.

When Clive asks Marcus to come up and visit him, Marcus brings along his friend Ellie, a young woman totally obsessed with Nirvana and Kurt Cobain in particular. On their way to see Clive, Ellie flips out at a store owner who has a cardboard cut-out of Cobain displayed in the window. After she breaks the window, she and Marcus are arrested.

In the meantime, Will has actually found himself falling in love with a woman and losing his ability to remain detached. This troubles him greatly but he eventually starts to actually enjoy the ups and downs of the new relationship. Rachel also has a son named Alistair who is the same age as Marcus.

All of these characters end up at the suburban police station where Marcus and Ellie are taken. At one point in the conversation he has there with Will and Fiona, Marcus rather forcefully says the he hates Joni Mitchell. This is evidence to Will that Marcus finally has things figured out and the novel ends with Will telling himself that Marcus is going to be ok.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1232

Twelve-year-old Marcus and his mother, Fiona, have just moved from Cambridge to London, four years after his parents’ divorce. Marcus tries to understand his mother’s depression and to adjust to their new location. He discovers that his new school conforms to strict fashion and behavioral styles. Marcus dresses unfashionably and has a habit of drifting off and singing out loud. Although he tries to avoid bullies, he is not successful. In addition, Marcus worries increasingly about his mother’s signs of mental illness.

Will Freeman, according to a magazine quiz he has taken, has a “coolness” rating of subzero. His philosophy is to avoid clutter, whether of possessions or of personal responsibilities. Will receives royalties for his father’s only hit song, “Santa’s Super Sleigh,” allowing him to avoid work and providing him with time for fantasies of volunteering. Although he never actually volunteers for a cause, Will finds a new philanthropic endeavor: He becomes involved with Angie, a beautiful single mother. For Will, it is a perfect relationship. The attractive single mother adores him for not being her previous husband and for listening attentively, and she ends the relationship herself just when Will is wondering how to break up and still be considered a nice guy.

To meet more single mothers, Will invents a two-year-old son, Ned, and a former wife, Paula, and attends a meeting of SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). Will meets Suzie, Fiona’s best friend, at the meeting and is invited to a SPAT picnic with Suzie, Marcus, and Suzie’s daughter. Bringing Marcus home, they find that Fiona has attempted suicide. While Marcus is in a living nightmare, Will is fascinated by the drama and Marcus’s sudden fear that his mother will make another attempt to kill herself.

This encounter provokes one of Will’s periodic resolutions to help others, and he offers to spend time with Marcus. After Fiona’s suicide attempt, Marcus decides that, although he may not need a father, he and his mother are not safe alone. As a result, Marcus accepts Will’s offer on the condition that Fiona can accompany them. Marcus hopes that Will and his mother will get together. Will, a dedicated materialist, and Fiona, an antiestablishment hippie, talk to each other but have no interest in each other romantically. The outing ends, to Will’s horror, in a sing-along to Joni Mitchell that causes Will to rethink his volunteerism.

Marcus shows up at Will’s apartment one afternoon and invites himself in. Although Will is dubious about what become Marcus’s recurring visits to watch Countdown, a television quiz show, he fits them into his routine. At one point, Will sees how much Marcus is bullied at school and resolves to help him. Fiona does not approve of Marcus spending time with Will, but Marcus refuses to stop seeing him. Will resists involvement, but his and Marcus’s relationship becomes stronger and is furthered when Will tangentially helps Marcus find two fifteen-year-old friends at school, Ellie and Zoe. Will is especially helpful to Marcus in teaching him about popular music, such as the band Nirvana. Ellie is an obsessive fan of the band’s lead singer, Kurt Cobain, eschewing her school uniform for a sweatshirt with Cobain’s picture on it. A bully herself, Ellie protects Marcus from other school bullies. Marcus is awed by Ellie’s strong personality, aggressive nature, and refusal to back down in the face of rules. Ellie’s parents are divorced as well, and she and Marcus begin to develop a strong friendship.

On New Year’s Eve, Will meets Rachel, a beautiful, intelligent woman who is not interested in him until they connect on the topic of children. Rachel assumes that Marcus is Will’s son. Will allows her to believe this, and they agree to get their sons together. In love for the first time, Will is desperate to see Rachel. Marcus agrees to help him (hoping Will can help him further with Ellie, too), although Marcus does not understand why Will cannot just tell Rachel the truth. Eventually, Will does tell Rachel the truth. In the end, this deepens their relationship, although at first Rachel is more circumspect.

When Fiona begins crying again, Marcus asks Will and Ellie for help, but each says that, although Marcus thinks they know things, they cannot help with “real” problems. Will rethinks this statement, however, and he realizes that he is an adult and that he has a responsibility to Marcus, but he is unsure how to help. Upon Rachel’s suggestion, Will talks to Fiona, and they arrive at a deeper friendship. Will sees that she will not attempt suicide despite her continuing depression.

Ellie accompanies Marcus to visit his father on the day that Cobain’s suicide is made public. She reacts violently to the news, becoming drunk and damaging property; both she and Marcus end up in jail as a result. This episode results in Marcus finally confronting his father and recognizing Ellie’s weaknesses, while Ellie is struck by her culpability for her actions when she meets and identifies with the shopkeeper whose window she damaged. The woman seems to Ellie to be much like Ellie herself, only ten years older.

Marcus, Ellie, and Zoe become close friends. Will and Fiona feel that they have lost some of Marcus, who is conforming more to his school’s dress styles and common teen interests, but they are happy to see him adjusting to school and building relationships. Will is considering proposing to Rachel. Will and Marcus continue to develop their different relationships, having both arrived at new levels of stability, self-awareness, and maturity supported by their network of friends and family.

Further Reading

Alexander, Jonathan. “One Gay Author, One Straight Author, and a Handful of Queer Books: Recent Fiction of David Leavitt and Nick Hornby.” Harrington Gay Men’s Fiction Quarterly 4, no. 2 (2002): 110-120. Examines characters’ social relationships concerning themes of openness and extended social communities that are broader than traditionally conceived family units.

Anthony, Andrew. “The Observer Profile: The Boy Done Good.” The Observer, October 26, 1997. Discusses Hornby’s place in English literature and provides an overview of his writing style and themes.

Bannister, Matthew. “’Loaded’: Indie Guitar Rock, Canonism, White Masculinities.” Popular Music 25, no. 1 (2006): 77-95. Although About a Boy is not discussed, this article examines identity and gender related to indie guitar rock—the genre of Nirvana, the band referenced frequently in About a Boy. Helps explicate the meaning of Nirvana, both to popular culture and to Hornby’s novel.

Crawshaw, Steve. “Profile: Nick Hornby—Mad About the Boy.” The Independent (London), May 26, 2001. Provides an overview of Hornby’s work, writing style, and themes. Includes biographical information.

Espen, Hal. “Too Cool for Words.” The New York Times Book Review, June 28, 1998, p. 13. General overview of Hornby’s writing style that also delves into the place of comic novels in contemporary literature and the place of Hornby’s work within that genre.

Gerard, Nicci. “Soft Lad.” The Observer, April 25, 1999. Discusses Hornby’s works and influences, both his literary forebears and the biographical experiences that shape his writing.

Murray, Stuart. “Autism and the Contemporary Sentimental: Fiction and the Narrative Fascination of the Present.” Literature and Medicine 25, no. 1 (Spring, 2006): 24-45. Discusses About a Boy, among other novels and films with characters identified either explicitly as autistic or as having autistic characteristics.


Critical Essays