Nicola Simonetti reviews The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up by Lauren Mangiaforte, a novel that provides deep insight into the St. Andrews Experience.
It is not easy to drive away the bittersweet feeling that the obscure ending of The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up arises in its readers. Built on a crystal clear reference to Peter Pan —as the opening quotation and several other references throughout the book show— the novel recounts the sympathies and antipathies of two third-year students, Catriona Darlington and Julie Lovejoy, who grow from strangers to enemies in less than a year. Drama, passion and incomprehension are just a few components of their lives, intertwined with those of Max, Peter, Harry and Simon, keepers of each girl’s destructive secrets and instigators of their bad choices. The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up is a tale that leads its readers back to a time when they were free from any concerns; at the same time it makes them aware of the cosmopolitan, and sometimes suffocating, reality of St. Albas, where the book is set (0ne of the characters’ definition of the town as ‘a very amusing set of little games’ is no exaggeration to me). Although Lauren Mangiaforte, the author of the book and a recent St Andrews graduate, creates fictitious names for all the places she talks about (the Ancient Links, Flat Sands, Sea Street, Church Street, the Shark, Bard House, etc.), her ever-thorough descriptions make it easy to recognise St Andrews iconic locations. Lauren Mangiaforte’s first-hand experience of St Albas does not go unnoticed, making her book a very enjoyable read, even more for the readers who are also insiders of the described society.
The open criticism of St Andrews students’ clichés plays a major role throughout the entire novel, a society deeply affected by drugs and frivolous types of entertainment. Prince William’s recent statement that ‘you leave the university in either one of two states: either married or an alcoholic’ could not be more appropriate for Mangiaforte’s work, in which parties and social events are the ever-present background of the main storyline. Snobbery and romance are deeply interlinked in The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, marking what I dare call a purposely failed bildungsroman in which most of its characters refuse to man up. The absence of a sense of balance—the characters are foils of each other— and the final grim-like atmosphere draw from a literary tradition well known to any Scottish student. Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner seems to have been a good model for the story’s structure, for its representation of characters who are the shadow of one another. Curiously however, it is Mangiaforte’s well-rounded characters that make it hard to identify the protagonist and antagonist. The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up presents either too selfish or too selfless characters who end up being both the protagonists and the antagonists of their own stories, never fully responsible for their choices because consequences of how they have been raised.
An ambiguous ending —what will Catriona do with herself?— brings everything back to the original situation: May Saving, which is obviously May Dip. Holding a hope for Catriona’s salvation, we cannot ignore the assumption that if Julie and Catriona have to be seen as representing different expectations of womanhood, Julie’s happiness is supposed to mean Catriona’s defeat, and as such perhaps her death too. Women’s love is a major theme of Lauren Mangiaforte’s book, although, paradoxically, women never seem to be free to choose by themselves but are always heavily influenced by their male pair. Nevertheless, the author manages to offer a full spectrum of male and female diversities, trying not to show a propensity for her own sex —despite the opening quote that ‘one girl is more use than twenty boys’—, but examining the several shades of men’s behavior as well, as the very different characters of Max and Simon prove.
Although at first glance The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up could be misunderstood for just another romantic novel trying to use the popularity of St. Andrews as a marketing gimmick, the book’s powerful message conveys the idea of a damaged and dreamlike society that keeps its students apart from the real world hampering their chance to grow up, yet still facing the harshness of life. The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up offers an accurate representation of St Andrews —or even better, the Bubble— as a small reality far away from anything else. Mangiaforte’s work manages to expand on a wide range of contemporary themes, denouncing the flaws of a life built on appearance and promoting a wiser use of one’s judgement. The setting of a small college town is a universal location and the realism of the characters and their experiences make us question how much of this is fiction.
The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up is a charming, captivating and innovative novel that makes us wonder how much is based on real facts and how much is left to the author’s imagination. Drawing upon every reader’s hope to stay a child forever, The Boys Who Wouldn’t Grow Up gives us an insight of what life has in store for everyone, providing us with advice to not make the same mistakes as Catriona and Julia.
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