The Boy is Back
Meg Cabot always makes me laugh. What distinguishes her best books from her less successful efforts is the depth of characterization behind the humor. Unfortunately, The Boy Is Back ranks among her less successful and shallower efforts. This is a story told entirely through text sources (text messages, emails, newspaper clippings, etc) which always has its limitations, and the great heroine – Becky – and a couple of solid supporting characters can’t fully compensate for the weak hero and uneven tone. It’s still fun, but it feels forced.
Becky Flowers and Reed Stewart were a hot item in high school, but something went dramatically wrong on prom night, and Reed left town for good. Until now. Reed’s parents are arrested for attempting to pay for their dinner with a postage stamp, uncovering a whole pile of financial problems and raising concerns about their mental state. Reed, now a wealthy golfer, reluctantly comes back to town to help his siblings sort out the problems. They hire none other than Becky, who now not only owns the town’s only moving company but is qualified in assisting both hoarders (Reed’s mom has a thing for cats, both live and ceramic) and people with cognitive issues (have Reed’s parents started to slip?)
Without a doubt, Becky is the best part of this novel. I loved her professional competence. Becky is a darn good senior moving consultant, well-versed in the technical and human side of her job. She’s the only person who can get Reed’s parents to see that they may be living with just a few too many piles of newspapers and that the raccoon in the dining room ceiling really ought to go. She is very aware of and concerned about potential conflicts of interest if she starts dating and/or sleeping with Reed during the course of helping his parents. Her emails written in “mover mode” are crisp and professional, and it’s fun to contrast them with the panicked texts she sends her best friend immediately afterward.
I also really liked Reed’s sister-in-law Carly, the voice of sanity and reason in the family, and her relationship with the head-in-the-sand brother Marshall, who finally starts to see the need to take action over his parents. They sound like a real married couple, which is one of the hardest things to write, and I admire that characterization greatly. Reed’s horrible sister Trimble, whose vitriol practically makes the pages sizzle, is funny in her awfulness but also true-to-life. If you’ve ever hung out in online advice columns, you’ve met Carly and Marshall (“My husband doesn’t see that his parents need help!”) but you live for letters from Trimble (“My siblings should take care of my parents, move them out of the house, and sell everything, and pay off all of their debts, but they better not DARE touch or sell the Venetian glass chandelier BECAUSE IT’S MINE. But those unreasonable idiots refuse to deliver it to my house”).
Unfortunately, Reed is a bland non-hero. He left town, hasn’t been back in ten years and hasn’t contacted Becky since largely because… it’s been ten years, and it’s hard to contact someone after ten years. (Insert disappointed trombone sound). I can see this working in literary fiction about a neurotic man but not in a romantic comedy. Things need to be larger than life, not flatly normal. Reed likes Becky exactly the way he always did and pursues her with the puppyish enthusiasm of his teen self, except now with more money. If you want to read about a pro golfer who can’t win “the big one” without the love of his heroine, SEP’s Dallie Beaudine makes Reed Stewart look like a cardboard cutout.
I also couldn’t figure out the tone of this book. The writing is fast and modern, but the comedy elements feel forced. Reed’s uncle Lyle, for instance, is fixated on his show orchids – something that unfortunately reads less as “What a quirky character!” and more as “No, look, he’s totally a quirky character, see?” Becky’s boyfriend Graham owns a wine and cheese shop, and most of his presence in the book is him inviting people to tastings and trying to find good wines and cheeses for them. Yet somehow this is supposed to be shorthand for “What a dorky loser, so wrong for Becky.” Because he’s passionate and knowledgeable about the products in his store? I would have preferred a date with Graham to a date with Reed any night.
In further tone issues, Reed and Becky’s soggy prom night escapade is built up to be something hilarious and zany, but the reveal is boringly realistic. Most disorientingly, Reed’s parents’ problems are portrayed both as funny slapstick (the mom hoards ceramic cats!) and as grounds for serious concern (Becky sends emails talking about financial swindles of the elderly and asks the children to investigate obtaining power of attorney). Was I supposed to laugh at the mom’s ramblings in an online ad, or was I supposed to be sad and worried?
The epistolary premise is also forced. In order to make sure everything in the book is text, the author must manipulate the characters into writing, even when it’s unnatural. Characters go off on plot tangents in emails to inform us, the readers, not the email recipients (at one point, Reed writes, “God, why am I telling you all this?… You just wanted to know how Mom and Dad are doing!” Good question!). The characters have to explain to us why they aren’t just talking (“I have asked you repeatedly not to text me from the bathroom.”) Nasty Trimble’s child vents, inexplicably, in an Amazon review. Reed and Becky’s conversation just happens to be caught by a text-to-speech transcription machine used by a local journalist. Again, if the book were wholeheartedly funny, I could take this as over-the-top commentary on the silliness of, say, Reed and Becky texting each other about how much they like having sex when they’re in the same house. However, as it is, it doesn’t work.
Cabot is always, technically, a talented writer, and Becky is such a great character that a book starring her really can’t be in the Cs. But it just barely makes it out.