Review: Wonder Boys

Wonder BoysWonder Boys by Michael Chabon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the rarer instances where a movie adaptation led me to the novel: I had tuned in only halfway to a movie called Wonder Boys while flipping through TV channels one night, and in addition to a perfectly talented stellar cast (Frances McDormand, Robert Downey Jr., Michael Douglas, Tobey Maguire), I found myself completely attracted to the characters and the events surrounding them, despite having missed half of it.

Once the movie ended I looked it up and learned that it was based on Michael Chabon’s novel carrying the same name – Wonder Boys (I was also surprised to find out the movie hadn’t fared that well in the box office, given how much I personally liked it, but I digress).

On to the book, which I would eventually read after “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”, and as such is my second read of Chabon’s work. Having originally liked what I’d seen of the movie so much, the book didn’t disappoint at all:

Set in Pittsburgh, the novel revolves around professor and author Tripp at a moment of crisis, who is stuck in what could be called a writer’s block that prevents him from finishing a novel he’d been working on for too long, as he juggles his career woes, marital and personal relationship difficulties, and somewhat bizarre events involving a troubled student of his and his eccentric editor and friend.

As the events unfold, we learn about the characters’ pasts and glimpse into the staff campus life they are part of. Tripp, who is a middle-aged man, comes across as someone who is, despite his best intentions, charmingly unable to act in a “mature”, “grown-up” manner.

The characters, through all their trials and tribulations, are all very likable, on one level or the other, I found myself relating to or sympathizing with each one of them – this is an observation I have made regarding Chabon’s characters in general based on the two novels I have read: he is an author who lovingly draws his characters, he knows them and he likes them, they are nuanced, tend to defy attempts to simply categorize them as purely “good” or totally “bad”, and generally always display some redeeming quality, a saving grace, that makes it impossible to completely dislike them. The same needs to be stressed for his female characters, who come across as strong, equally developed counterparts to the male protagonists.

Chabon’s writing style is engaging and often very funny, sometimes in a sad way. It was very entertaining to follow the plot of weird events and exhilarating to have it unraveled as Tripp slowly unburdens himself of his troubles (quite literally too), but what makes this book so great and attractive to me other than the story itself and its unconventional events, is Chabon’s warmly well-crafted characters, all unique, at once normal and bizarre.

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