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The Man who Forgot His Wife by John O’Farrell

I read The Man Who Forgot his Wife by John O’Farrell for the sole reason that it was the book club read for December. I say read but by the end I was skimming it, having lost all interest in the characters or the plot.

Apparently this novel belongs to a sub genre of fiction called “lad lit” or “bloke lit” which is presumably a marketing ploy dreamed up by some publishers in the hope it will generate the same level of popularity as chick lit. I’ve not read any chick lit and if The Man Who Forgot His Wife is an example of its male-orientated partner, I won’t be in a hurry to read anything of this ilk again.

This is not to say everything about O’Farrell’s book was dislikable. The premise was an interesting one: a middle aged man  experiences acute amnesia while at  a London Underground station. Why is he there? Where is he going? Where did he come from? He doesn’t know. Nor does he know he is called Vaughan or anything else about himself. He has no form of identification in his pockets; nothing who can answer even the basic questions about his name, address, age. No-one seems to have reported him missing.

He has in essence,  disappeared.

After a week in hospital where he is diagnosed as suffering an amnesia style fugue, he is tracked down by his best friend, the very boorish Gary. The remainder of the book shows how Vaughan re-discovers elements of his life including the welcome news that he is married to a very attractive woman and has two children. As he goes through the process of rejoining the pieces of his life, he learns to be a better husband, son, father, teacher etc. In short, he doesn’t put his old life together but rather, he constructs a new one.

The novel contains some thought-provoking reflections on the nature of memory and our identity. In a world where anyone with access to a computer can re-invent themselves via an avatar, it asks us to consider whether the concept of who are is completely an artificial construct  — the result of our own idealisations and re-invented recollections of the past.  If O’Farrell had made this the focus of his novel, it would have sustained my interest. Unfortunately it wasn’t prominent enough to compete against the repetitive nature of the narrative. Nor was the reflective aspect enough to contend with the fairly lightweight humour.

In fact it would have been a better novel all round if half of the jokes were eliminated. They were just not funny enough and felt often as if the author was just trying too darn hard to be funny — even the running gag of a postcard featuring an Irish leprechaun which was amusing the first few times it appeared, became predictable by the end.

I had multiple issues with this book beyond the quality of the humour: the characters lacked real depth and were not people I warmed to in any way. Gary was especially irritating but I didn’t much care for Vaughan either. The narrative was at times inconsistent — at one point Vaughan conveniently remembers his wife’s computer password and also where she keeps her passport — and also felt very much as if the author had one eye on the film rights.

While most of the members of the book club felt it wasn’t one of the best reads, they were rather more tolerant than I was, so it ended with a score of 6.5 out of ten. That was a long way off the score I awarded!

The Verdict

The Man Who Forgot his Wife is an easy, light hearted, quick read but has little of substance to hold the attention.

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