By Nick Hornby.
Wow, this is good. Go figure.
Will Freeman is a 36-year-old boy, essentially. He's never had to work due to living off of the royalties of his dad's one-hit-wonder song "Santa's Super Sleigh." He just...kinda putters and exists, more or less. Eventually we find out why this is--his dad was bitter over the whole song thing, his family split up, and eventually Will learned to not really give a shit about anything or anyone. It makes life more pleasant that way.
However, Will ends up dating a single mom and liking the experience, and after she breaks up with him, he wants to meet more single moms. So he joins a single parents' social group--abbreviated SPAT--and thus has to fake a son, 2-year-old Ned. While on a date with single mom Susie, he ends up meeting 12-year-old Marcus, who is brought along to the park without his mum.
Marcus is a weird yet pragmatic kid. His mom Fiona is a big ol' hippie sort who doesn't let him listen to the same tunes everyone else does or dress the way that everyone else does, and at his new school, he's getting bullied for being a weirdo. His dad's living with his new girlfriend and essentially, Marcus and his mom are on their own. Which is a massive problem when Fiona becomes depressed enough to want to kill herself while Marcus is on that park outing.
After that, Marcus decides that not having enough people in his life as backup is a Bad Thing, and he decides to deliberately grab on to Will--eh, he seems nice enough and he seems to have money, why not--as a lifeline. He tries to fix up Will with Fiona--which absolutely isn't going to happen on both sides of the equation--but after that doesn't take, Marcus just starts visiting Will after school and refusing to leave. Will is taken aback by this sort of thing, but eventually goes along with it and he starts to feel for Marcus a little, especially when he finds out how much Marcus is getting picked on. He even goes so far as to buy Marcus some less-nerdy sneakers (er, trainers--it's England) to make him blend in more.
But after the sneakers get stolen the next day, Fiona finds out about Marcus's forced adoption of Will and has some issues with that, as anyone would. Marcus is forced to use the "nuclear option" of claiming he needs a father to keep Will around--something that works on Fiona as intended, even though Will can tell right off that's what Marcus was up to. Marcus is a semi-manipulative kid, but he's got his reasons and his needs. And Will figures out that Marcus isn't so much looking for another dad so much as he needs someone to tell him how to be a regular/normal/less nerdy boy. Will may not be much of an adult, but he is up for that--and finds out that he does care about somebody, surprisingly, after all.
Then they meet girls: Will meets another hot single mom, Rachel, and falls in love at first sight. He realizes that he's spent his whole life being boring and useless except for his relationship with Marcus, so what else does he have to impress a girl with? As for Marcus, he falls for 15-year-old school rebel and Nirvana fan Ellie, who starts to like and adopt him as a pal after he has the nerve to speak to her in school--even if he doesn't know who "Kirk O'Bane" is. I should point out that this book is set in 1993-1994, so what happens to Kurt Cobain has a lot of relevance to the end of the plot. It becomes an interesting musing on suicide, what with Marcus's mom having had the urge herself. It gives you a lot to think about (and kind of makes me want to read A Long Way Down). The whole Nirvana thing is so well done that I'm rather sad it was left out of the movie. (The movie is very good and stays pretty true to the plot and tone of the original, except for leaving out Nirvana and replacing it with a musical plot.)
This book really is surprisingly well done--not that I expected it to be shit exactly, I did not, but I didn't expect as much subtle depth as it has. There's some great twists of phrase that come from Marcus or Will that really reveal their hidden depths and motivations and why they act as they do. And Fiona's issues aren't magically resolved one bit--she's probably still depressed enough to at least worry about by the end and nothing really is super Happily Ever After. I'd call it "Better For Now." At the very least, Marcus has more of "his people" around in the event of emergency, even if they themselves don't know how to deal with things perfectly either. And Will, much to his surprise, has people too. And is even getting a little better with time.
Four stars. I'm impressed.