THE BOYS, by Katie Hafner
Katie Hafner’s taut and utterly delightful debut is a novel of multitudes. It is travel escapism, a family drama, a character study, social commentary on pandemic isolation and an incredible journey back to center. We are emerging from a period of forced introversion, and “The Boys” provide the perfect antidote. For anyone who now feels anxious about leaving the house or traveling abroad or re-entering the world, you will find, as I did, a kindred spirit in Ethan Fawcett.
Ethan is a socially awkward homebody who has created a cozy, steady, predictable life with his wife, Barb. He’s a gifted computer programmer who happens to have a perfect pitch and is the kind of lovable brainiac who knows the length of each song on a jukebox.
When Ethan was only 8 years old, his parents drowned during their Hawaii vacation and from then on, he was raised by his grandparents. This tragic past is no secret; it’s laid out logically by Ethan in the first few pages of “The Boys.” From the breeziness of Hafner’s prose to the approachability of Ethan’s voice, the reader is lulled into a sense of safety, believing that Ethan has worked through his childhood troubles, has found his strength and stay in Barb, and will ward off any midlife crisis with mature confidence. In a character-driven narrative as well done as this one, I certainly expected Ethan’s worldview to be shaken — but no amount of preparation could have prepared me for what Hafner had up her 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 bike touring company, Hill and Dale Adventures, asking Mr. Fawcett very politely to never use their services again: “After careful consideration, we have concluded that Hill and Dale is not a good fit for your particular set of needs.”
What could have inspired such a letter? What could the 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 weeklong 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 enjoy himself on vacation, because wherever Barb leads, he will follow. After this blissful time together, they return home to Mike the Cat, who soon dies. This loss prompts Barb to consider whether they should expand their family.
Enter the boys: Tommy and Sam, twins perpetually dressed in overalls, whom Barb and Ethan plan to foster as a sort of trial run. The brothers are Russian, picky eaters, allergy-prone and unable to speak English — and, as Ethan soon discovers, in desperate need of protection. He becomes their father, teacher, playmate, nutritionist, doctor, guardian angel and indefatigable spokesperson. Ethan openly admits to being the planner, buying plane tickets early enough to ensure a complete row for him and the boys, packing vetted food for the boys in Ziploc bags, referencing dry, matter-of-fact child-rearing books.
Deftly and brilliantly, Hafner unfurls all the ways in which Spock-like Ethan will be tested. Tommy and Sam are around the age Ethan was when he lost his parents. Ethan is fast 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, eating and nurturing become Ethan’s priority. He reads the boys “Anna Karenina,” then “for a healthy dose of American history,” moves on to “Gone With the Wind.” All is amusing and reflective of first-time parenting jitters, until Ethan sets such stringent, obsessive boundaries that Barb makes the difficult choice to leave.
At first, I was not sure how to process Barb’s decision to abandon her family. As a new foster mother, how can she abandon her family? Thankfully I didn’t have to doubt her for long. Barb is a research scientist investigating the effects of loneliness on the elderly and social isolation in general; inadvertently, her greatest case study has become her middle-aged husband, who is not alone per se but has found a unique way to burrow into his own solitude and grief.
There is a surprise at the center of this book, so original and unusual that I stopped pushing forward for a day to reread the first half again and check for inconsistency. Hafner doesn’t miss a beat. In true Ethan fashion, the narrative from his perspective is remarkably in sync with new circumstances. Yet when Ethan and the boys go on a second bike tour — this time without Barb — the narrative cleverly switches to the perspective of Izzy, a company guide assigned to the most difficult clients. Despite the intensity of Ethan’s requests — for instance, under no circumstances can the boys get wet — Izzy, being an outsider, is able to draw Ethan out. Tommy and Sam behave like no kids I have ever read about or known, but the most important question is, why are they so special to Ethan? Ethan is lost. He is grieving and trying to build human connections through avenues only he can understand. We’ve all been there by now, haven’t we — experienced isolation severe enough to make us detach from others and even ourselves?
In the hands of a lesser writer, the heartfelt family comedy-saga could have faltered, but Hafner remains in total control throughout. I cannot say more without giving the story away, so I will just say this: What a wonder of storytelling. I will be thinking of these boys for a long time to come.
Weike Wang’s latest novel is “Joan Is Okay.”
THE BOYS, by Katie Hafner | 245 pp. | Spiegel & Grau | $27