George Hall has recently retired when he discovers a lesion on his hip which he takes to be skin cancer. Even though his doctor tells him that it is simply eczema, George is not reassured for long. His worry gradually becomes panic. He learns that his wife, Jean, is having an affair with an old friend of his, that his daughter, divorced single mother Katie, is going to marry a man he disapproves of, and that his son, Jamie, intends to bring his gay lover to the wedding. At this point his hypochondria becomes distinctly pathological. He attempts to excise the lesion himself with kitchen scissors and ends up in hospital.

With the help of antidepressants and psychotherapy, he begins to recover, and then, finding other marks on his skin, relapses. Things come to a climax at Katie's chaotic and (for the reader) very funny wedding, where George, on a risky mixture of valium and alcohol, makes an overly confessional speech and then physically attacks his wife's lover. Order is restored with the help of Jamie and Ray, the groom, who turns out to be heroically kind and efficient (and whose working-class status is then forgiven by George and Jean), and the novel ends with happy reconcilations. George's health anxiety has not, though, entirely disappeared and the novel ends with a clear sense of the mental effort required, especially as we age, not to give in to our fears of disease and death.


This novel is a comedy with a serious purpose. The various family dramas are familiar from farce: the unfaithful wife caught in flagrante delicto, the one-night stand struck with very messy food poisoning, the jealous fiance who throws garbage cans about when he sees his wife out for coffee with her ex-husband, and the inebriated father-of-the-bride who shocks everyone at the wedding. Yet Haddon presents the farcical as a way of managing the underlying potential for the tragic, or, worse, the meaninglessly desolate. As George says in his wedding toast, "We spend most of our time on the planet thinking we are going to live forever..." but, as he has realized in a newly visceral way, "we are all going to die." Inappropriateness for the occasion aside, this recognition underlies both the novel's comic injunction to forgive and not to judge, and its profoundly realistic and frightening exploration of the abyss that opens up when the threat of serious disease reveals the fragility of the happy stories we tell ourselves. Haddon's accounts of George's panic attacks, and the seeming rationality of his assault on the body that seems not himself but a threat to him, give a vivid sense of the effects of illness anxiety, particularly in relation to aging.



Place Published

New York



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