THE YOUNG, by Katie Hafner
Katie Hafner’s taut and utterly delightful debut is a novel for many. It’s travel escape, family drama, character study, social commentary on pandemic isolation, and incredible journey back to center. Coming from a time of forced introversion, The Boys offers the perfect antidote. For all those who are now afraid to leave home, travel abroad, or re-enter the world, you will find, as I did, a kindred spirit in Ethan Fawcett.
Ethan is a socially awkward homebody who has built a comfortable, stable, and predictable life with his wife, Barb. He’s a gifted computer programmer who happens to have perfect hearing, and an endearing brainwave who knows the length of every song on a jukebox.
When Ethan was just 8 years old, his parents drowned while on vacation in Hawaii and he was raised by his grandparents from then on. This tragic past is no secret; Ethan laid it out logically in the opening pages of The Boys. From the lightness 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 troubles, found his strength and whereabouts in Barb, and will ward off any midlife crisis with mature confidence . In a character-driven narrative as well-crafted as this, I certainly expected Ethan’s worldview to be shaken — but no amount of preparation could have prepared me for what Hafner had in store. (Hafner was a New York Times contributor for 10 years.)
The plot unfolds like a mystery. The prologue is a letter from the head of a fictional bike tour company, Hill and Dale Adventures, very politely asking Mr Fawcett never to use their services again: “After careful consideration, we have come to the conclusion that Hill and Dale will not well matched for your specific needs.”
What could have inspired such a letter? What could the seemingly harmless Ethan have been doing? There are two bike tours in the book, both through the boutique company. The first is a honeymoon gift from Barb’s parents – a week-long bike tour of the Piedmont region of northern Italy. The journey is unforgettable and invigorating; Ethan realizes, perhaps for the first time in his cautious life, that he can enjoy himself on vacation because wherever Barb takes him, he will follow. After this blissful time together, they return home to Mike the Cat, who soon dies. This loss causes Barb to consider expanding their family.
Enter the boys: Tommy and Sam, twins who wear jumpsuits all the time, who Barb and Ethan want to tease as a kind of dry run. The brothers are Russians, picky eaters, prone to allergies and don’t speak English – and, as Ethan soon discovers, they desperately need protection. He becomes her father, teacher, playmate, nutritionist, doctor, guardian angel and tireless spokesman. Ethan openly admits to being the planner, buying plane tickets early enough to ensure he and the boys have a full line, packing verified meals for the boys in Ziploc bags, referencing dry, factual child-rearing books.
Deft and brilliant, Hafner unfolds all the ways the Spock-like Ethan is put to the test. Tommy and Sam are about the age Ethan was when he lost his parents. Ethan is fast approaching the age when his father drowned. The pandemic strikes and with this unique opportunity to seek shelter on the spot, Ethan’s priority becomes daily learning, feeding and caring for the cubs. He reads “Anna Karenina” to the boys, then “for a healthy dose of American history” continues with “Gone with the Wind.” Everything is amusing and reflects the parents’ initial nervousness, until Ethan sets such strict, obsessive boundaries that Barb makes the difficult decision to leave.
At first I wasn’t sure how to process Barb’s decision to leave her family. As a new foster mother, how can she leave the family? Luckily I didn’t have to doubt her for long. Barb is a researcher studying the effects of loneliness on older people and social isolation in general; Her biggest case study has inadvertently become her middle-aged husband, who is not alone per se, but has found a unique way to delve into his own loneliness and grief.
There is a surprise in the middle of this book, so original and unusual that I stopped for a day to reread the first half and check for contradictions. Hafner doesn’t miss a beat. In true Ethan fashion, the narrative is remarkably in sync with the new circumstances from his perspective. But when Ethan and the boys go on a second bike ride—this time without Barb—the narrative deftly shifts to the perspective of Izzy, a corporate leader assigned to the toughest clients. Despite the intensity of Ethan’s pleas – for example, the boys mustn’t get wet under any circumstances – as an outsider, Izzy is able to lure Ethan out. Tommy and Sam are acting like no kids I’ve ever read about or known about, but the bigger question is, why are they so special to Ethan? Ethan is lost. He grieves and tries to forge human connections through ways only he can understand. We’ve all experienced it, haven’t we – experienced isolation so severe that we became disconnected from others and even from ourselves?
In the hands of an inferior writer, the heartfelt family comedy saga could have faltered, but the whole time, Hafner remains in total control. I can’t say more without revealing the story, so I’ll just say this: what a marvel of storytelling. I will think of these guys for a long time.
Weike Wang’s latest novel is called Joan Is Okay.
THE BOYS, by Katie Hafner | 245 p. | Mirror & Gray | $27