A Friend of the Family
by Lisa Jewell
(Dutton, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-525-94734-5
****
Lisa Jewell’s fourth novel focuses on three brothers whose lives are transformed by an eccentric stranger living in their parents’ house. Fans of Nora Roberts’ Chesapeake Bay trilogy beware - these men are nothing like the rugged but enlightened Quinn brothers who could always be counted on to Do the Right Thing. The London boys bear a closer resemblance to the confused, immature men who populate Nick Hornby’s novels such as High Fidelity and About a Boy. But their eventual push towards decency and adulthood is that much more satisfying because their flaws are so glaringly obvious.

On the surface, there’s very little evidence of dysfunction in the London family. After nearly 40 years together, Gerry and Bernie London live happily in their large, cluttered home full of odds and ends from their antique store. They have a close relationship with their three grown sons, Tony, Sean and Ned, but Bernie misses having the boys at home. So it’s no surprise that she impulsively offers a spare bedroom to Gervase McDonald, a tough-looking but surprisingly gentle man she meets at the neighborhood bar where she sings every Wednesday.

The boys eye Gervase with mild suspicion, but they are too preoccupied to give him much notice. Oldest son Tony, a successful businessman with a sweet, pretty girlfriend, wonders why he is so unhappy. Unambitious middle son Sean, who recently surprised everyone by writing a bestselling novel, is madly in love with his new girlfriend but is stunned when she makes an announcement that changes the whole tenor of their relationship. And baby of the family Ned, who has just returned from a three-year stay in Australia, is trying to shake the troubled relationship he left behind and re-establish himself personally and professionally. As the brothers struggle to grow up, they find unexpected assistance from Gervase. Despite his unconventional appearance - flattop haircut, missing tooth and black leather jacket - Gervase may be just the angel that the family needs.

The book’s introductory quote from author Cyril Connolly reminds us that “boys do not grow up gradually - they move forward in spurts like the hands of clocks in railway stations.” That theory certainly is true in the case of the London men. They are decent enough blokes, but when it comes to responsibility and sharing, they still have a lot to learn. I don’t want to reveal any of the plot’s surprising twists. Suffice to say that each of the boys could have earned top billing on Men Behaving Badly. However, Jewell does such a good job at capturing the characters’ complexities that you understand the fear and confusion behind the selfish acts, and you empathize with them as much as you want to slap them.

Jewell also accurately portrays the interactions among the three brothers. It’s obvious that they love each other, but the Londons aren’t comfortable with a lot of heart-to-heart group hugs. Yet they do manage to communicate, even if their most important conversations take place when they are lined up at a public restroom’s urinals. Ranging in age from late twenties to mid-thirties, the roles of the older brother, middle brother and younger brother were established decades ago, but the boys learn there are still opportunities to change their dynamics and relate in new ways.

The mysterious Gervase provides a touch of whimsy to a novel that is otherwise grounded in male realism. Jewell takes a chance by making his interactions with the boys just a little corny, but for the most part she avoids Oprah-like sentiment, which would be totally inaccurate. He may be a guy with something extra, but he is, after all, a guy.

By the end of the novel, hearts are broken and mended, professional decisions are made, and the family is able to celebrate Gerry and Bernie’s 40th wedding anniversary knowing that their bonds remain strong. If you’re weary of Chick Lit’s high heels and red lipstick, and would welcome a little masculine behavior, including farting, cursing and occasional wanking, you’ll be glad to find A Friend of the Family. While it is not quite as resonant as Jewell’s last novel, One Hit Wonder, it’s a fast-moving, absorbing read, as well as a reminder that, unlike Peter Pan, most boys can grow up if they really want to.

--Susan Scribner


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