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The Boys


The Boys

Ethan Fawcett, the narrator of Katie Hafner’s first work of fiction (after writing six nonfiction books), is the kind of guy who might be easily overlooked. He’s attractive enough, but he’s painfully, almost pathologically awkward. When he first goes out on a date with Barb, the woman he eventually marries, she confesses that she had a bet going with a coworker about whether or not he ever actually talked.

When the two meet, they are working for a Philadelphia startup. Ethan suggests that he and Barb (who’s there only temporarily while she pursues her PhD in psychology) go out to his favorite diner. Barb is entranced by the tableside jukebox, and they make a vow that they’ll continue coming to the diner together until they’ve listened to every track. That long conversation develops into a real relationship, and before long the two are engaged. Barb encourages Ethan to be more outgoing and ask questions of the people he meets. Ethan falls hard for Barb’s vivaciousness and curiosity about the world, and he continually surprises her by revealing new facts about himself.

"THE BOYS is by turns heartbreaking and wittily observant, and readers will warm to this odd, endearing character Hafner has created."

But one aspect of Ethan’s past is too difficult and painful for him to share with anyone, even himself on most days. Athough Barb ends up learning that his parents were killed in a freak accident while on vacation, she doesn’t grasp the extent to which he has internalized the trauma of their sudden death. This becomes more of a crisis when that trauma manifests itself again now that Ethan is an adult.

After their wedding, Ethan and Barb spend an idyllic honeymoon on a cycling tour of Italy --- a real revelation for Ethan, who has been terrified to go on vacation ever since his parents lost their lives. They are as in love as ever, and Barb is eager to start a family. When infertility becomes a concern, she brings home two young brothers, foster kids originally from Russia. Ethan throws himself headlong into caring for Tommy and Sam, convinced that by keeping them safe, he can succeed where he once failed. But his overwhelming interest in their well-being starts to drive a wedge into the couple’s marriage. He finds himself back in Italy --- without Barb, but with the boys in tow --- for what will become a very different kind of journey.

Hafner’s book will appeal to those who loved ELINOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE. Ethan’s dispassionate narration, combined with his emotional vulnerability, may remind some readers of that novel. Partway through the book, the point of view shifts to that of Izzy, a guide on that second cycling holiday that Ethan takes with his sons. Having the opportunity to view Ethan through Izzy’s eyes will broaden our understanding of his situation. In some ways, Izzy is one of the novel's most interesting characters. Although she doesn’t arrive until the second half of the story, her empathy and kindness --- compelled in part by her religious faith --- transforms her into a catalyst for Ethan’s eventual healing.

THE BOYS is by turns heartbreaking and wittily observant, and readers will warm to this odd, endearing character Hafner has created.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on July 29, 2022

The Boys
by Katie Hafner

  • Publication Date: May 2, 2023
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
  • ISBN-10: 1954118341
  • ISBN-13: 9781954118348