As someone who regularly asks the question posed by the title of Jenny Colgan’s mid-2000s novel Where Have All the Boys Gone?, I don’t know if I’m comforted or horrified by the proof that women have been pondering this mystery for at least a decade and a half. Regardless, I’m quite glad that the publishers reissued this thoroughly enjoyable book, presumably in support of Colgan’s actual new 2020 release 500 Miles from You (I’ll be reading it).
Katie Watson works for a PR company in London and spends most of her time with her two best friends: Olivia, her boss, and Louise, her flatmate. None of them have a great love life. Olivia’s lack is mostly by choice, but Louise has just been dumped by her boyfriend, who ran off to India with Katie’s sister, Clara. After Katie is mugged one evening by a thief who is as interested in judging her life as he is in stealing her money (“Nice girl like you. Should have a nice man to look after you. Buy you nice bags.”) she decides it’s time for a change. She applies for a job in Fairlish, Scotland, as press officer to the Fairlish Forestry Commission. After a ten-hour train ride and a disastrous interview in a Land Rover, she thinks that’s that. Then the Commission hires her PR firm and she’s sent back up there, with Louise in tow. Up in Fairlish, land of “the highest ratio of men to women in Britain”, Katie begins her campaign to save an unprotected forest from golf course developers while having a “flingette” with the local newspaper writer, Iain, and coping with her “Mr. Grumpy Boots” boss, Harry, who she notes looks “like a young Gordon Brown” (yes, he’s a love interest, and no, this is not a creepy-power-dynamic office romance, I assure you).
If I had to pie chart it out, I’d say this book is eighty percent women’s fiction and twenty percent romance, and it does the women’s fiction part especially well. It’s not often I love a book’s writing even more than the story it tells, but that’s how I felt about Where Have All the Boys Gone? The writing is like that of a stand-up comedy routine or a television script: sharp, fast, and quotable. For example, when Katie tries to explain her job to Louise, their exchange is:
“Apparently trees need a PR.”
“I thought they had Sting.”
“He’s on tour. Anyway, he only cares about foreign trees.”
A major strength of this book is that it is about women, and written by a woman who clearly likes women. Nothing gets my goat like a book that seems devoted entirely to mocking women as stereotypes. But Katie and all the other women in the novel are satisfactorily diverse in their personalities, desires, etc., and the only truly unlikable character is Clara. Colgan also writes a good best friend character. Louise is an endearingly good-natured person, and her little tadpole of a side-plot romance with the town vet is lovely. And Colgan poses some of the best questions of the book through her. “I just wanted a husband and some children and some chickens,” Louise says.
“And I know it’s really unfashionable to say that and I know we’re all supposed to be career women and not give a toss and stand up for our feminist heritage. . . . But I feel like an idiot for wanting that, and there isn’t a single man in this stupid fucking town [London] who feels like that. . . . Is that fair?”
And these words are spoken not by a woman who’s your typical conservative – she’s the same woman who has been coping with her break-up with an unmitigated stream of “unbelievably casual sex”. Is there anything better than when a heroine has a best friend who doesn’t run a bakery and who has more complex feelings than a Blush Face emoji?
The drawback of Where Have All the Boys Gone? is that it doesn’t quite get the romance right. I did admire that Colgan wrote and sustained an actual love triangle: I was prepared for her to have Harry or Iain do something that made them totally unlikeable and make it easy for me to hate the one and love the other, but she never did (Harry comes closest though – his first suggestion to Katie on how to do PR is “do that girlie thing. Toss your hair a little.” Katie’s reply: “I’m not a horse.”) And ultimately, it turns out the only thing worse than an unconvincing love triangle is a convincing one. Katie seems torn to the very end, and despite Colgan’s last-minute insistence that “it was always” [insert spoiler, name here], the ambiguity took away from my ability to fully enjoy the HFN because my inner skeptic said ‘But. . . ?????’ Also, Colgan uses close third person focused on Katie’s perspective for the story, except for randomly inserted paragraphs when we get the men’s perspective on their feelings for Katie. Now, I loved reading about Harry’s realization “that he did actually fancy Katie and wasn’t having a mild allergic reaction every time she walked past him”— and I get that in women’s fiction it’s less common than in romance to have perspective from both leads, but it just makes absolutely no sense as a writing style to have these shifts.
Where Have All the Boys Gone? reminded me that quality, non-historical, non-dramatic women’s fiction can be written. If you’re wondering where all the good books have gone, there’s one sitting on a bookshelf under ‘C’ for Colgan.
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