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Posted on 19 May 2020 in Fiction |

LAURA SOUTHGATE The Boyfriend. Reviewed by Sally Nimon

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Laura Southgate’s first novel highlights questions of agency and serves as a warning against allowing others to make choices for you.

At seventeen, here’s what I know: a boyfriend falls desperately in love. It’s an affliction. He tells you he loves you, how much it’s hurting him. Then he kisses you passionately… And then you’re together.

So advises Erica, our protagonist, in the opening moments of Laura Southgate’s The Boyfriend, an exploration of how one young woman navigates her entree into the world of romance, attraction, hormones and all the various shapes and shadows of what our society calls love.

Speaking of boyfriends, it seems clear from this opening statement that the narrative is going to involve at least one potential candidate, and it doesn’t disappoint. Before we even arrive at page 13, Erica has introduced us to Dieter, fellow library-shelf stacker and cool Dungeons and Dragons player; Donny, the beanie and chunky-sneaker wearing yoga attendee; and Paul, university student and fellow cast member of the German class production of Dr Faustus.

Who will she choose? Which of them will fall headfirst into the formula, desperately afflicted with love?

None, as it turns out. First of all, it appears that Erica is incapable of making a choice, preferring to let the tides of life carry her wherever they will. Paul and Dieter quickly fade into the background, leaving only Donny, who doesn’t follow the script at all.

What he does do, is lurk around every corner.

He’s there at yoga, the only guy in the class wearing shoes and a grey-brown beanie.

He appears at German club in her first year at university.

He lurches into her in the street one day, talking her into accompanying him to see a movie.

He can’t be her boyfriend, she reasons, because he hasn’t followed the formula. And she appears to keep reasoning this way even after several years have passed and she finds him somehow now a resident of her parents’ house. And then the clock ticks over again and now they’re living together in a flat.

Donny is older than Erica – much older, it seems, by up to ‘a quarter of a century’. And it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t enjoy their time together. Sex is a cold, perfunctory affair (‘Don’t play dead,’ Donny tells her. ‘I’m not into that.’) He suggests she’s so uptight she should be taking drugs. (‘I wonder what would be best for you. Maybe psychedelics.’) And then, during a fight in which she refuses to spend the last of her monthly allowance on beer, one of her wrists is broken.

Yet despite all this, Erica struggles to fend him off. She leaves, and a few pages later he’s oozed back into her life again. They fight and she rejects him – yet still she finds herself missing the hole he’s left behind. Eventually, and against her better judgement, she calls to talk to him, but he’s anything but conciliatory:

‘Let’s let ourselves off the hook for a change,’ I said on the phone beforehand. ‘I promise not to get all resentful if you don’t inflict that mournful look on me.’

‘Erica, your narcissism is astonishing. I don’t inflict a look on you.’

Yes, you do.’

‘That look, as you callously refer to it, is nothing but undiluted despair.’

‘Fine. It’s okay to look sad if you’re feeling sad, that’s not what I mean.’

‘I see. I see. Thank you for your permission to express emotion, Frau Maus. I know how unpleasant it must be for a fastidious emotion-hoarder such as yourself.’

For many people, this would be the cue to press the red ‘end call’ button and delete his number from their contact list. But Erica refuses to escape Donny’s orbit. She remains bound to him in self-inflicted passivity, appearing to outsource all responsibility for her life to everyone and anyone around her. Even as her friends and contemporaries continue to grow, move away, decide on a life path, and pursue careers, she stubbornly continues to float along in an undirected fog. As her friend Kyle (and another potential boyfriend contender) eventually exclaims in frustration upon hearing her declare she ‘thinks… but who knows’ she might be moving to Auckland: ‘What do you mean who knows? Isn’t it up to you, Erica?’

And this is the nub of the problem. The Boyfriend is a charming read in many places, entertaining, light and witty. Yet occasionally – as in the exchange above – it is difficult to empathise with the central character’s plight.

Erica’s boyfriend formula is sweet in its naivety, but while it might be believable as the life philosophy of a teenager, it begins to grate as we watch her progress into her early twenties. The pull towards Donny grows increasingly difficult to understand, especially as his behaviour deteriorates. Although we may have met many Ericas – and hopefully not so many Donnys – their story is exasperating. And perhaps that’s the message we’re left with at the end – that it’s better to make a decision, any decision, rather than allow ourselves to be subject to the whims of fate.

Because if someone like Donny is pulling the strings, it might be better to choose to unravel somewhere else.

Laura Southgate The Boyfriend Fleet 2020 PB 272pp $32.99

Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.

You can buy The Boyfriend from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.