Are Some Childhood Traumas too Large to Overcome?
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Katie Hafner was a writer for The New York Times for ten years. She is still a contributor there. She has also written for Esquire, The New Republic, O, The Oprah Magazine, and more. She has five non-fiction books in print. The Boys is her first work of fiction. The idea for the novel came to her on a bike trip to Scandinavia with her daughter. One of the tour guides described a previous guest who had been very problematic. The daughter turned to Katie Hafner and said exactly what Hafner was thinking, “That’s a novel.”
And so, The Boys starts with a letter as the Prologue. The letter is to Ethan Fawcett from Hill and Dale Adventures telling him it would be best if he and his two sons did not return for future excursions with the company. Enquiring minds will turn the page to find out why.
In those early pages, we meet Ethan and learn of his tragic childhood. Namely, when he was eight years old, both of his parents died in a swimming accident while on vacation in Hawaii. Thus, he grew up with his grandparents in an isolated childhood. As he says of his grandparents, “I didn’t know much about grief, but I could tell that my grandparents had been hit by something akin to a tornado, something from which they would never fully recover.”
Ethan finally comes out of his shell when he meets and ultimately marries Barb. When we first meet her, she is a PhD candidate in psychology. The topic of her dissertation is the effects of loneliness on the elderly. “In the course of her research linking loneliness to physical illness, she and a couple of colleagues had published a stunning finding: loneliness can be as dangerous to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.”
As the book moves into the years of the pandemic, she becomes a sought-after specialist on the effects of loneliness on the general population, though she seems oblivious to the fact that her husband is falling apart from the effects of his lifelong loneliness.
What she does pick up on is the fact that Ethan’s parents were age 38 when they died and Ethan is coming upon his 38th birthday. She explains research to him about the possibility that he will become increasingly anxious as the birthday arrives and said a full-blown-post-traumatic stress event could take place.
When Ethan and Barb try unsuccessfully to have a child, Barb brings home two Russian children for them to foster. The reader gets nervous to learn that the boys – Tommy and Sam – are the same age Ethan was when he lost his parents. Barb again seems oblivious to this hazard.
Ultimately Ethan and Barb quarrel over the care of the children. Barb leaves Ethan and the boys! At this point, Ethan plans the bike trip with the kids, a trip to Italy with Hill and Dale Adventures. Something goes terribly wrong there – a huge plot twist – but it would be too big a spoiler to say what.
But let me say this: As I read this book, I felt I was meeting a character akin to the titular star of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. Others who read that book will know Eleanor’s childhood was so awful that she would probably never be completely fine. And that’s where I thought the author was going with Ethan’s character. But the plot twist on the bike trip turns this into another story altogether, though it leaves the reader with the same thought/worry, will Ethan Fawcett ever be completely fine, or are there some childhood experiences that are just too horrible to overcome?
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