A Boring Book
by Seth McDonough
Genre: General Fiction / Humor
Print Length: 500 pages
Reviewed by Kathy L. Brown
A charming and satisfying read about taking on the dull challenges of life with good will, grace, and a keen eye for inscrutable human behavior
A Boring Book presents itself as the ghostwritten autobiography of Canadian John Smith, growing up in the not-so-distance past, from childhood through young adulthood.
Written as a first-person account, John frequently interjects comments on the “ghostwriter’s” prose as well as third-wall-breaking direct address to the reader. These devices, along with the engaging voice, are intriguing and pull the reader into this everyman’s tale. With a dry, subtle wit and spot-on characterizations of the various actors in John’s mundane life, the tale is both amusing and compelling.
Young John is the quiet, contemplative twin, living in the shadow of his charismatic brother, Peter (Per). But John neither expects nor craves attention and is content to build a life as a helpful person and observer of his environment. People, their opinions, and what makes them tick interest John, and he is always delighted to find himself in an interesting conversation or activity.
We follow John through the typical experiences of his school years, high school jobs, crushes, moving away from home, and joining the corporate workforce. Always ready to lend a hand, he collects many eccentric characters along the way. The book portrays each unique, sharply defined character with affectionate wit.
The first half of the book has an episodic feel, each slice-of-life chapter a well-constructed short story. As John moves away from home and begins his corporate career, a larger story arc comes into play, tying events and characters together and interweaving them into his past.
I was impressed by this “boring” story’s ability to infuse the mundane situations of life with tension and conflict. The stakes matter to the protagonist, and so the reader is engaged. We identify with the protagonist, and the mundane is made interesting. I found this book a real page-turner, actually, without any car chases and fires. The narrative is assured and flows smoothly.
The book’s tone is charming, and each character speaks in a distinguishable voice. The humor yields smiles and chuckles, which suits John’s personality and outlook on life.
I love fictional footnotes, and the narrative is replete with John’s side comments as he disagrees with the “ghostwriter’s” creative choices. The infinite variety of the nineteenth-century “gentle readers” direct-address trope is a continuing source of amusement.
For example, “DEFENSIVE NOTE: Before you judge my unnecessarily honest answer, rebellious reader, please keep in mind that, as a growing dullard, I had little understanding or experience with the notion of lying being a viable form of communication.”
Yet, along with all the fun, this book highlights some important themes as to what constitutes a life well-lived: people being true to their own inner light and taking care of each other. For example, when John is working at his uncle’s clothing store, a customer shares that her husband just died. John struggles to imagine what Uncle Bert would say, but his conventional platitude flops. “My thoughts were overpowered by remorse…She was just hoping for a little compassion. So I made a pact with myself: I was never again going to try to be more than I was. That consoled me a little, and for a moment I second-guessed my daydream about what I could have done with Uncle Bert’s talent; instead, perhaps I should have been imagining what he could have done with my heart.”
Readers who enjoy a unique take on narrative and characterization will be glad to spend some time with Mr. John Smith. There’s plenty of nostalgia here, as we relive the common, everyday experiences of growing up seen from a gently humorous perspective. We can’t help but root for John and wish him success in all of his dull endeavors.
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