Review: “The Boys”, by Katie Hafner
THE BOYS, by Katie Hafner
Katie Hafner’s tense and utterly delightful debut is a novel of multitudes. It’s a travel escape, a family drama, a character study, a social commentary on pandemic isolation, and an incredible journey back to center. We are emerging from a period of forced introversion, and “The Boys” provides the perfect antidote. For anyone now feeling anxious about leaving home or traveling abroad or reentering the world, you will find, like me, a kindred spirit in Ethan Fawcett.
Ethan is a socially awkward homebody who has created a comfortable, stable, and predictable life with his wife, Barb. He’s a gifted computer programmer who has perfect pitch and he’s the kind of lovable brain who knows the length of every song on a jukebox.
When Ethan was only 8 years old, his parents drowned while vacationing in Hawaii and from then on he was raised by his grandparents. This tragic past is no secret; he is logically introduced by Ethan in the opening pages of “The Boys”. From the breeze of Hafner’s prose to the accessibility of Ethan’s voice, the reader is lulled into a sense of security, believing that Ethan has overcome his childhood issues, found his strength, and remains in Barb, and ward off any midlife crisis with mature confidence. In a character-driven tale as well done as this, I certainly expected Ethan’s worldview to be shaken – but no amount of preparation could have prepared me for what Hafner had up his sleeve. . (Hafner was on staff at The New York Times for 10 years.)
The plot unfolds like a mystery. The prologue is a letter from the head of a fictional cycle touring company, Hill and Dale Adventures, very politely asking Mr. Fawcett never to use their services again: “After careful consideration, we have concluded that Hill and Dale is not not a good fit for your particular set of needs.
What could have inspired such a letter? What could a seemingly harmless Ethan have done? There are two bike trips in the book, both through the boutique company. The first is a honeymoon gift from Barb’s parents – a week-long bike ride through the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The trip is memorable and invigorating; Ethan realizes, perhaps for the first time in his cautious life, that yes, he can have fun on vacation, because wherever Barb leads, he will follow. After this moment of happiness together, they return to Mike the cat, who soon dies. This loss has Barb wondering if they should expand their family.
Enter the Boys: Tommy and Sam, twins perpetually clad in overalls, whom Barb and Ethan plan to cheer on as a sort of trial run. The brothers are Russian, picky eaters, prone to allergies and unable to speak English – and, as Ethan soon finds out, they are in desperate need of protection. He becomes their father, teacher, playmate, nutritionist, doctor, guardian angel and tireless spokesperson. Ethan openly admits to being the planner, buying plane tickets early enough to ensure a full line for him and the boys, packing boy-approved food in Ziploc bags, referencing dry children’s education books and pragmatic.
Deftly and brilliantly, Hafner uncovers all the ways Spock-style Ethan will be tested. Tommy and Sam are around the age Ethan was when he lost his parents. Ethan is rapidly approaching the age his father was when he drowned. The pandemic hits and with this golden opportunity to shelter in place, the boys’ daily learning, feeding and education become Ethan’s priority. He reads the boys “Anna Karenina”, then “for a healthy dose of American history”, switches to “Gone with the wind”. It’s all fun and reflects the nervousness of first-time parents, until Ethan sets boundaries so strict and obsessive that Barb makes the difficult choice to leave.
At first, I didn’t know how to process Barb’s decision to abandon her family. As a new adoptive mother, how can she abandon the family? Fortunately, I didn’t have to doubt her for long. Barb is a research scientist who studies the effects of loneliness on older adults and social isolation in general; inadvertently, her biggest case study has become her middle-aged husband, who isn’t inherently alone but has found a unique way to bury himself in his own loneliness and grief.
There is a surprise at the center of this book, so original and unusual that I stopped moving forward for a day to re-read the first half again and check for inconsistencies. Hafner doesn’t miss a beat. In true Ethan fashion, the story from his point of view is remarkably in tune with the new circumstances. Yet when Ethan and the boys go on a second bike ride – this time without Barb – the narrative cleverly shifts to the perspective of Izzy, a corporate guide assigned to the toughest clients. Despite the intensity of Ethan’s demands—for example, the boys can’t get wet in any way—Izzy, being an outsider, is able to get Ethan out. Tommy and Sam behave like no kid I’ve heard of or known, but the bigger question is why are they so special to Ethan? Ethan is lost. He is grieving and trying to make human connections in ways only he can understand. We’ve all been there before, haven’t we — experienced an isolation severe enough to detach ourselves from others and even from ourselves?
In the hands of a lesser writer, the heartfelt family comedy saga might have faltered, but Hafner remains in full control throughout. I can’t say more without giving away the story, so I’ll just say this: What a marvel of storytelling. I will think about these boys for a long time.
Weike Wang’s latest novel is “Joan Is Okay”.
THE BOYS, by Katie Hafner | 245 pages | Spiegel & Grau | $27