76 pages 2 hours read

Nick Hornby

About a Boy

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


About a Boy (1998), by English novelist Nick Hornby, is a coming-of-age, comedic novel. The story begins with 12-year-old Marcus Brewer moving to London in 1993 with his loving but suicidal mother, Fiona. He must adjust to a new school with strict social norms for behavior and appearance. Marcus doesn’t wear the right clothes; he talks or sings to himself when he’s stressed without being aware that he’s doing it; and he immediately becomes the target of school bullies. At home, Marcus copes with his mother, Fiona, who is loving and caring toward Marcus but incapable of truly supporting him because of her extreme depression. The novel was a number-one bestseller in the United Kingdom at the time of publication. In 2002, the novel was made into a film starring Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult.

Plot Summary

Twelve-year-old Marcus has moved to London from Cambridge with his depressive mother Fiona. Marcus is being bullied and excluded at his new school. Meanwhile, 36-year-old “sub-zero” cool Will Freeman is living off the royalties of his father’s famous Christmas song, “Santa’s Super Sleigh.” Will decides he will date attractive single mothers and pose as the nice guy who looks good compared to their treacherous ex-spouses. He goes as far as inventing a two-year-old son, Ned, and joins a group called SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together).

Will and Marcus meet at a SPAT picnic, where Will is trying to flirt with SPAT member Suzie, who is looking after Marcus for the day. Will and Marcus do not get on, but when Marcus accidentally kills a duck after throwing a bread loaf at it, Will makes an excuse that saves Marcus from getting into trouble. When they arrive at Marcus’s house, they discover Fiona has collapsed from a suicide attempt. Although Fiona survives, Marcus is frightened for her and decides she needs a boyfriend—and that Will is a suitable candidate. Marcus soon realizes that nothing will happen between the two adults, but he insists on visiting Will anyway. The two hang out at Will’s flat, and when Will learns of the bullying at school, he buys Marcus new sneakers so he will fit in better. When Marcus’s sneakers are stolen by the bullies and Fiona confronts Will, the latter feigns indifference and agrees that he will not allow Marcus to visit him. Marcus, however, insists on continuing to visit Will. Eventually, Will agrees to allow Marcus to make an impact on his otherwise empty life.

At a New Year’s Eve party, when Marcus meets interesting, single mother Rachel and falls instantly in love with her, he realizes Marcus is the only engaging aspect of his life. However, Rachel mistakes Marcus for Will’s son. Will does not correct her and goes as far as staging a charade where Marcus poses as his son. Eventually, he is forced to tell Rachel the truth. She does not abandon him but is cautious about moving too quickly in the relationship. Meanwhile, Marcus is more confident at school and has begun hanging out with misunderstood rebel, Ellie McRae, and listening to Nirvana. He is, however, worried about his mother, who often cries uncontrollably and wants Will to talk to her. Will initially shirks this duty, but Rachel convinces him to talk to Fiona.

Will finds that talking to and comforting Fiona is easier than he imagined; however, their conversation is interrupted because Marcus and Ellie must be collected from a police station after Ellie defaces a window display. At the end of the novel, Will and Marcus have ostensibly swapped places. Will, who is deepening his relationship with Rachel, has become a responsible adult; whereas Marcus, who is speaking his mind and hanging out with Ellie, has become more of a carefree, unremarkable teenager.