Book Review: The Man Who Forgot His Wife by John O’Farrell

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It took me until I was nearly finished reading this book to realise which category of novel it fell into and that is “romance for men” – dick lit instead of chick lit, if you will. The story is a romance between Vaughan and Maddy but instead of the high emotions and drama that appear in romance for women, this book has comedy, farcical confusion and a sidekick/wingman/best friend/loud mouth. I expect it would still be read mostly by women but almost certainly it would also have more male readers than a romance written for women (which generally have none).

Vaughan is on a train when he is “reborn” – it’s nothing to do with religion, it’s just that he can’t remember anything. Not a single thing about himself, who he is, where he’s going or where he’s been so he feels like a fully grown baby. He finds a hospital and spends a week wearing a wristband listing him as “Unknown White Male” until his best friend, Gary, figures out where he is and comes to take him home.

Except home isn’t where home used to be. Vaughan is in the middle of a messy divorce from Maddy, his wife of fifteen years. He’s homeless as a result and has been couch surfing at Gary’s. Which is why Maddy didn’t miss him, didn’t even realise he’d been struck down with a medical condition, wouldn’t have cared had she known. But from the moment Vaughan sees Maddy from a distance, he knows he loves her despite being unable to remember her. And he wants to win her back.

Except… how do I put this politely? Vaughan, pre-memory wipe, was an A-class a-hole. He smoked incessantly, drank like a fish, wore a bedraggled beard, dressed badly, stayed out late frequently, didn’t lift a finger to help around the house and upset the children with his incessant arguing with his wife over the most trivial things.

Luckily, the memory wipe has turned him into an entirely different person. He no longer smokes or drinks, he shaves, he buys new suits, he makes an effort with his kids and he’s considerate of his wife. But, of course, she can’t forget as easily as he has all the things that led to their acrimonious relationship breakdown.

I can draw parallels between The Man Who Forgot His Wife and The Rosie Project. Both feature men suffering social awkwardness (for different reasons). Both feature men trying to figure out who they are meant to be spending the rest of their lives with and then pursuing that goal. Both feature amusing and embarrassing moments for the main characters as they navigate the limitations of their neurological conditions.

The problem with the premise of the book is that it seems to suggest that all a man has to do in order to save his marriage is completely change his personality. New and improved Vaughan is everything that old Vaughan never was. In fact, it’s hard to believe that they are both the same person because they are exact opposites. He’s woken up from his old life with a completely different approach for no apparent reason, like those people who wake up from head injuries with the ability to speak a foreign language or with an accent they never had before. But can you imagine the uproar if John O’Farrell had written a book in which a woman wins back her husband by changing everything about herself?

Vaughan gradually recovers enough of his memories to be able to see his relationship with his wife from her perspective but he never once acknowledges that he was a great big tool. He just expects her to forgive him because he’s a different person now.

There are a couple of big twists at the end of the book in the grand tradition of every romance ever written and I’m sure you can guess how it ends given the genre.

The book is written well and it does have its moments, such as when Vaughan has to give the eulogy at his father’s funeral for a man he doesn’t know anymore, when Gary constructs a Wikipedia page for friends and family to reconstruct Vaughan’s life and it is hilariously hijacked by Vaughan’s students (he’s a history teacher) and when he has to take the stand in his divorce proceedings and answers every question with the words, “I can’t remember.”

But it isn’t anything more than a collection of moments following a very familiar formula. There are plenty of worse books out there but there are also plenty of better books. And one dick lit book every few years is probably enough for me.

3 stars

*First published on Goodreads 13 May 2016

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