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Doubleday, 368 pp, $24.95
Doubts that a writer of children’s stories can make the transition to adult fare don’t die easily. But if Mark Haddon’s for-all-ages sensation The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time didn’t convince you it could be done, his follow-up novel carries the distinction of being marketed solely to the older crowd. And Haddon, who sensitively portrayed the daily struggles of an autistic 15-year-old in the engagingly unorthodox Curious Incident, indeed ventures into strictly adult territory with A Spot of Bother. The novel is a thoroughly enjoyable—if not terribly profound—glimpse at a family in complete disarray, with the daughter’s on-again, off-again wedding setting the stage for hilarity adroitly balanced by a good deal of soul-searching. George, the ordinarily unassuming family patriarch, is diligently trying to maintain a “Buddhist detachment” from his daughter’s second marriage when a midlife crisis intrudes rather abruptly upon his studied serenity. It is as though, Haddon writes, “someone unscrewed a panel in the side of George’s head, reached in and tore out a handful of very important wiring.” His wife, Jean, doesn’t have much time to soothe his newfound existential angst, as she’s rather busy having a torrid affair with one of his ex-colleagues. Their son, Jamie, is gay and can’t decide whether to bring his boyfriend to the wedding: “He wasn’t sure which was worse. Mum and Dad pretending Tony was one of Jamie’s colleagues in case the neighbors found out. Or their being painfully groovy about it.” And then there’s bride-to-be Katie, who was initially looking forward to marrying Ray—it might do her good, make her less “fey and crapulous”—but nagging doubts about his boorish behavior begin gnawing away at her initial resolve. If the plot strikes you as somewhat familiar, that’s because you’ve seen it before in such films as Father of the Bride. The foundation may be unoriginal, but Haddon’s inventive character sculpting keeps things entertaining. Nobody ends up one-dimensional or caricatured, and though plenty of laughs are to be had at everyone’s foibles, it’s impossible not to sympathize with their various predicaments. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his insight into children’s psyches, Haddon’s treatment of Katie’s incorrigible young son, Jacob, is masterful. Jacob’s periodic utterance of simple, unvarnished truths coupled with a penchant for behaving in the most inappropriate manner makes his a worthy addition to the novel’s stable of slightly off-kilter characters. But this story’s principal achievement is its ability to mesh broad comedy with human drama. Amid the general tomfoolery, every character is racked by a particular kind of depression or fear, investing the tale with a good deal of dramatic ballast. Midlife crises, failing marriages, and divergent lifestyles would ordinarily prove enough to tear any family asunder. But all the characters in this story are propelled by an instinctive, almost primeval urge to prevent their clan from falling apart. Thankfully, Haddon explores this collective impulse without ever adopting a maudlin tone, unlike some movies you might have seen. —Rayyan Al-Shawaf