Book Review: This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

June 10, 2008

My mother-daughter book club with Madeleine met last week to discuss This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. This was our first memoir, and it’s unfortunate that it came so close to the end of school that many of the girls were too stressed studying for finals to read much of it. The moms and two of the girls had read it, and we had an interesting discussion.

The story begins when 10-year-old Toby is driving with his mother from Florida to Utah to escape his mother’s abusive boyfriend. They eventually keep moving on to Seattle and finally to a small town north of there. The moms were a bit frustrated that we didn’t know more about Toby’s life before then: we find out his mother is divorced and an older brother lives with the father, but we never learn more than that about his earlier life.

The memoir takes place starting in the mid-1950s, and it’s surprising to read about neglect and abuse in an era that often evokes thoughts of “Happy Days.” The moms wanted to see more redemption in the story. Toby changes his name to Jack, gets into trouble out of boredom and lack of supervision, and generally seems to be on a course that will limit a successful future. We know he comes out well on the other side, because we know he’s an accomplished writer, but we don’t get to see that in This Boy’s Life. The girls were more accepting of those limitations and read the story for what it was— snapshot of Toby’s life from the time he left Florida until the time he left high school. Through the years he learns to survive. The author wastes no emotional energy on his younger self, giving it to the reader straight through the boy’s actions and letting us draw our own conclusions about his emotional state.

All in all, it was a good book to discuss, and it was interesting for us to read a memoir with an author writing about the same age our daughters are now. Recommended for ages 16 and up.

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