“You’d better not come back on future excursions,” states a letter from Hill and Dale Adventures in the prologue to The Boys.
With this intriguing opening, we meet Ethan Fawcett, who works at a Philadelphia startup as chief technology officer. He is an introvert and considered something of a mystery (“the brilliant engineer”) to his colleagues.
Ethan has anxiety issues and little interest in socializing. That is, until he meets Barb who works part time at his company. She is the opposite of him, sunny and outgoing, a psychology graduate student whose research area is loneliness in the elderly.
They begin dating and Barb introduces Ethan to a world other than work. Their courtship includes some bizarre activities, like hanging out at Ethan’s favorite diner marking song times on a tabletop jukebox, a twist on the “cute dating” trope familiar from romance novels.
For Ethan, his time with Barb is more than romance. He becomes an essential bond of love that has been lacking since his youth, when his parents died in a tragic accident.
They get married and enjoy an idyllic honeymoon on a bicycle through Piedmont. It’s a dream trip, organized by Hill and Dale Adventures. Back home, life seems to be going well for the couple until the advent of COVID-19 brings a big change in their lives.
Barb has become a minor media celebrity for her work and her application of the isolation that has permeated the culture during the pandemic. They want to start a family but Ethan is barren so they agree to prove custody and one day Barb brings home two 8 year old Russian orphans, Tommy and Sam.
The boys have a series of health problems, which Ethan deals with obsessive care. As he says, “you are never too sure”. All aspects of the boys’ lives become Ethan’s only priority. The isolation of COVID-19 gives him a new purpose and Barb a research focus too close.
Ethan’s anxieties play out in his parenting style, to Barb’s dismay, and results in her eventual leaving the relationship. He decides to take the boys on the same Italian bike trip that he and Barb took at the beginning of their relationship, with the same tour company. And this is where the mystery at the heart of the story emerges.
During the trip, Ethan has a number of special and unreasonable requests for a variety of services for his boys. The firm hires guide Izzy, whose specialty is dealing with difficult customers, to work with him. Izzy’s empathy and compassion help Ethan recognize his unresolved grief and childhood trauma and their effect on his marriage.
This is definitely a character-driven novel, with themes of attachment and secrecy but also mystery and humor. Readers will be shocked to discover the secret Ethan has kept so close over the years.
Hafner is a journalist who spent a decade writing for The New York Times and has six non-fiction books to her credit. The Boys, her first novel, is full of surprises and so many thoughtful observations that I felt compelled to add a few of her paragraphs to my book of quotations.
Madeline Matson is the Adult Programming and Reference Librarian at the Missouri River Regional Library