November 2002

Michael Schaub

fiction

Loverboy by Victoria Redel

Obsession has always been a popular theme in fiction, from Moby-Dick to A Fan's Notes to -- all together now -- Lolita. Add an unreliable narrator, and you've got a pretty good approximation of what a good percentage of young writers are attempting these days. Victoria Redel's novel Loverboy shows signs of breathing life into a formula that's beginning to wear a little thin, but it's not nearly as subversive or clever as it could be.

The unreliable narrator in this particular novel is the (unnamed, for what it's worth) single mother of the titular loverboy, a small child named Paul. The mother's obsession with her son is instantly obvious, and not just because she addresses her son with the breathless floridity of, well, Humbert addressing his Lo. (Redel does not disguise her influences, which is, at the very least, honest.) "There is no falling in love the falling in love with a child," the mother explains.

And what a love it is. As the novel progresses, the reader is introduced to a mother who is, at best, overprotective, and at worst, possessed of a subtle, possibly subconscious cruelty, refusing to let her child have any meaningful contact with anyone other than her. It's not a stretch to see the mother as abusive -- in fact, she is exactly that, though her intentions are pure. (In contemporary American fiction, the mother's intentions are always pure, unless the writer wants to be saddled with the "sexist" label.)

As Paul becomes more insistent on freeing her mother's grasp, she becomes more determined to keep him close by, so that his fragile little mind isn't corrupted by worldly influences. Of course, it all ends disastrously. (This isn't telegraphing a surprise ending, by the way; the mother narrates the book from a hospital room, with her son conspicuously absent.)

The success of a novel like this one depends a great deal upon the extent to which the reader feels empathy for the narrator. Maybe the fact that I'm not a mother has prejudiced me in this regard, but I can't imagine feeling sympathy for this unholy monster of a narrator, good intentions or not. The mother is characterized with a cloying preciousness, which makes her seem more like a pretentious, insufferable bohemian-wannabe than a person with real emotions or motivations. Redel does offer an explanation for the mother's behavior -- her parents were emotionally distant -- but it's so weak, pat and predictable, only someone with a basic understanding of pop psychology would be convinced.

That's a shame, because the mother is the book's only real character. Paul is presented as a sweet kid, but he's still just a kid, not any different from the average American five-year-old. (That, one suspects, is the point.) There are other characters in Loverboy -- Lenny, the teenage boy who cuts the mother's lawn, and whom she considers seducing; Mrs. Yarkin, another obsessive mother whose presence in this book serves no discernible purpose -- but none are more than stand-ins, undeveloped and uninteresting. While the dialogue between mother and child is fascinating; no other character's words are even remotely convincing (which is a huge problem in the book's last chapter). It should be noted that Loverboy is a thin novel; it's understandable that Redel doesn't spend pages detailing the minor characters. But a little more description would have grounded this book well.

And that's what Loverboy needs. The reader floats through the book in an etheral haze, perhaps mirroring the drugged, semiconscious state of the hospitalized narrator. But from the beginning chapter to the deeply flawed final one, the reader is never fully convinced or fully drawn in. Redel's estimable (though sometimes precious) prose carries this novel; she also does a good job of building suspense. Unfortunately, that's not enough. All indications are that Redel has a beautiful, original novel somewhere inside of her. This isn't it.

Loverboy by Victoria Redel
Harcourt
ISBN: 015600724X
208 Pages