Publisher: Valley Press
Genre: Humorous Fiction
Release date: 24 02 2022
Price*: Kindle £4.99 (GBP)/ Paperback £11.17 (GBP)
Kindle $6.99 (USD)/ Paperback $19.93 (USD)
Pages: ~ 352
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Description of the book: The Former Boy Wonder is a bittersweet comedy that takes a sidelong look at first love, fathers and sons, and fidelity. With an irresistible plot and an impeccable sense of place and time, Robert Graham asks if it’s ever too late to grow up. It’s a rainy August in Manchester and music writer Peter Duffy’s life is falling apart. He’s knocking on fifty, his career is flatlining, his marriage is failing, and his teenage son barely speaks to him. And then a friend from university days invites him to a party at the manor house where he met his first love, the dazzling Sanchia Page. All the old gang are going to be there, and although it’s a long shot, maybe she will, too, which wouldn’t be helpful. Or would it?
THE GREAT GATSBY, LE GRAND MEAULNES and THE FORMER BOY WONDER by
“My purpose in reading,” John Updike wrote, “has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal.” I steal and I almost always have. I’ve learned that all artists do – and that it isn’t cheating.
From the earliest days, I knew the themes of The Former Boy Wonder: mid-life crisis, father-son issues, and lost love. In the story, the protagonist, Peter Duffy, is only weeks away from turning 50. He is raging – or at least pressing – against the dying of the light and fighting to repair relations with his wife and son when an invitation arrives, to the 50th his old friend Caitlin Byrne. The party is to be in a country house, the lost domain where he fell in love for the first time, with a young woman called Sanchia Page, and the fantasising this invitation provokes threatens to undermine his battle to save his family. That’s the present day of the novel, which takes place in the 2010s. A second narrative strand happens in the 1980s and concentrates on the story of Peter and Sanchia.
To help me write the book, I studied a handful of novels in greater or lesser detail, but the principal models I adopted were Alain-Fournier’s 1913 novel Le Grand Meaulnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. A major theme in both is lost love. Fired up by the similarities between Meaulnes and Gatsby and what I was writing, I decided to study these two novels in depth and see what I could learn. Both novels were particularly helpful in the way they introduced the love interest.
In Meaulnes and Gatsby, a grand party features the debut of a significant character: in the former, Yvonne de Galais, the woman the hero of the book falls in love with; in the latter, Gatsby himself, for whom Nick Carraway will fall. In both cases, the author delays this first appearance. To help me give Sanchia Page’s entrance maximum effect, I studied the build-up to the appearance of the key character in each book.
Meaulnes, who is perhaps 17, is at school with the narrator, François Seurel, and boards with the Seurel family. The first allusion to Yvonne de Galais comes after he has mysteriously disappeared for a few days. When Meaulnes returns, François can see that his friend is disturbed and bides his time until he will tell him why. It isn’t until p 33 that we begin to hear about Meaulnes’ adventure. Even if it isn’t clear at this point that it has a romantic conclusion, we have begun the journey that will eventually bring us to Meaulnes’ coup de foudre – which is not until p 58. The physical journey to the moment where the hero meets this young woman and falls in love is long. Her first appearance is delayed as Meaulnes gets lost in the empty countryside, stumbles upon the chateau and moves towards the centre of the party in it. This is stretched out over twenty-two pages, when it could easily have been covered in two. Fournier withholds the key moment of the novel’s first act for as long as he does to generate tension, engage readers and, with specific details at the party, prime them for the arrival of a magical creature. Details such as a treasure chest of children’s trinkets, a Pierrot, coloured lights, and plangent music give the party a fairy tale quality. With this steadily delayed entrance, we have the sense that Meaulnes is passing through a dream-like setting and being drawn inexorably towards something mysterious. When Isabelle finally appears, Meaulnes’ great moment arrives, and he falls headlong in love.
The dramatic beginning of the love story is equally delayed in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald takes his time building up to Gatsby’s first appearance and keeps him offstage long enough to make the reader’s desire to meet this romantic character intense. The build-up to Jay Gatsby’s entrance is designed to make him seem a man greater than any other, a legendary hero, perhaps. Just as Fournier delays Meaulnes’ first encounter with Yvonne for twenty-two pages after Seurel begins to tell us about Meaulnes’ adventure, slowly preparing us for the thunderbolt when he falls for her at first sight, Fitzgerald builds up to the arrival of Gatsby over the course of forty pages. What struck me most about this aspect of Gatsby was the way Fitzgerald used details of the settings – in particular, Gatsby’s mansion and the parties held in it – to characterise his mythical hero. The house is set in forty acres, has a marble swimming pool, and is built in the style of the grand houses of Normandy. The parties Nick witnesses include such details as flowing champagne, cars driven out from New York and parked five deep, and confident, wandering girls weaving here and there. By implication, Gatsby is all of the details of his setting (there are many more than I’ve included here) and so, before we meet him, without Gatsby doing or saying anything – without him even appearing – his mystique is extraordinary. And then he appears and says, ‘I’m Gatsby’.
I tried to apply what I had learned from Fournier and Fitzgerald about delaying the debut of a significant character. The first suggestion of Sanchia Page is on p 13 of The Former Boy Wonder, in the novel’s 2010s strand, and comes after the arrival of the invitation to Caitlin Byrne’s 50th:
My heart leaps and flashes of a party in the past come and go, Snapchat flashes of that house on a hill, the courtyard when Caitlin’s 21st was in full swing, the walled garden, and the fabulous girl I saw there, her long cloak dark against the foliage behind her.
Peter has further thoughts of Sanchia over the next three or four pages – such as this:
Seeing her again would be great. I mean, seeing Broadway Danny Rose or The Cramps again would be great. But seeing Sanchia again – that would be great. And also terrible, also torture.
On page 27, he takes out a photograph of her wearing a Panama hat, a picture taken just before they broke up, and one that evidently troubles him. We now know that she was his first love; she broke his heart; he has a nostalgic longing for her, and wonders if she will have been invited to the party. Sanchia’s mystique is, I hope, added to a few pages later when Peter is blown away in a moment of magic realism. On a giant screen on the side of a building in Manchester’s city centre, a girl who is wearing a dress like the one Sanchia wore the night they met walks backwards and forwards, approaching the viewer and retreating. The film, Peter decides, is an installation. The woman in it walks forward, points at him, repeats the words I love you, I love you, I love you and moves back again. Sanchia is next mentioned in the first section of the strand set in the 1980s, when some of her future housemates enthuse about her. Peter sets out to Caitlin’s 21st on p 46 (and we already know that he will meet Sanchia there). Using what I had learned from Fournier, his journey to the party is protracted, and once he arrives at Loston Manor, I spend four pages building a lavish and, yes, fairy-tale party – almost entirely through the use of sensory details of the setting. Finally, she appears, fifty-one pages into the novel, and literally walks on stage when she stands in front of a small crowd, plays the guitar and sings. My aspiration for Peter’s coup de foudre is that it may be as emotional, as romantic, as that of Meaulnes when he first sees Isabelle. Here he is, marvelling at the young woman before him:
Her voice was low and sweet, the sound of her guitar was mournful and resonant. The gentle light of the lanterns on her face was pale and my breath quickened as I soaked up the sound and sight of her… In this moment of surprise and wonder, the sight of her dazzled me, I felt as if I could step onto the roof of the summerhouse and climb up to the stars.
Their first conversation is brief, she appears to find him entertaining and then, as the the first section set in the past comes to an end, she introduces herself: ‘My name’s Sanchia.” (Remember ‘I’m Gatsby’?)
Halfway through the writing of The Former Boy Wonder, an article by the novelist Julian Barnes appeared in The Guardian. In it, Barnes said evidence had emerged that while writing The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had carefully studied Le Grand Meaulnes. The article then went on to examine some of the ways in which he used Fournier’s novel as a model for his own – which encouraged me to keep on doing what writers have always done: steal.
About the author: Robert Graham teaches Creative Writing up to PhD level at Liverpool John Moores University, and for many years was on the staff at Manchester Metropolitan University. His publications include a novel, Holy Joe (Troubador, 2006); two short story collections, The Only Living Boy (Salt, 2009) and When You Were A Mod, I Was A Rocker (Like This Press, 2013); a novella, A Man Walks Into A Kitchen (Salt, 2011); and three Creative Writing textbooks: Everything You Want To Know About Creative Writing (But Knowing Isn’t Everything) (Bloomsbury, 2009); The Road to Somewhere: A Creative Writing Companion 2nd edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014); How To Write A Short Story (And Think About It) 2nd edition (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).
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