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Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe by Evan James

Published by Atria Books on March 26, 2019

The Widdicombe family is “a sociable clan” grappling with the “curse of success.” Its members spend their days happily bickering with each other. Carol Widdicombe presides over their summer home on Bainbridge Island, a home she desperately wants to see featured in an interior design magazine. Her husband Frank’s usual state of depression has deepened because his annual trip to France, a reunion of college friends that he views as therapeutic, has been cancelled.

Frank responds by throwing himself in to a new project, writing a disjointed self-help workbook he calls The Widdicombe Way. Chapters include “On Putting on a Few Pounds” and “The Company of Cats.” Frank’s thoughts are less than profound but all the funnier for their randomness.

Frank is a retired sports psychologist. His son Christopher is also depressed, primarily because he is not in Italy playing with his older Albanian boyfriend. Christopher is unhappy that his parents are so tolerant and loving. To market his watercolors, he must pretend that he is the victim of “disgrace and loveless rejection.” In reality, his parents accept that he is gay in the same way they accept pretty much everything.

Bradford Dearborne, a “carefree loafer,” is a guest of the Widdicombes on a trip to borrow money from his father, a coffee mogul in Seattle. His father has financed Bradford’s screenwriting efforts for a year. Bradford partied in LA but made little progress on his horror film, and his father seems unreceptive to renewing his financial support. While Bradford sulks at the Widdicombes, he finds himself quite taken by Michelle Briggs, Carol’s assistant.

Other notable characters include a self-help guru who happens to be Carol’s best friend (Gracie advocates “decorating for enlightenment” and making a home into a “creativity shrine”), a gardener named Marvelous, and a gay Dane who is Michelle’s best friend. Each character benefits from a quirky but believable personality. The narrative flits from character to character, giving each due attention without lingering long on one character’s story before landing on another.

The novel finds fertile ground for humor in America’s self-help obsession. Self-help is a popular and deserving target of ridicule in comic novels. One problem with self-help, as the book illustrates, is that it distracts from actual living. Another is that the people who dispense self-help advice often have a tenuous grip on reality. But people like to be told they are sick so that they can learn the cure — or so one of the characters believes.

While its relationship humor is not as sharp as its self-help satire, Cheer Up, Mr. Widdicombe is an amusing domestic comedy. In the tradition of literary novels that emphasize characterization at the expense of plot, the novel doesn’t have much of a story to tell or even much of a point. It ends without resolving any of the questions it raises about how life might turn out for the various characters. Bradford all but disappears; other characters hang about but are little changed from the novel’s beginning to its end. For readers who won't be put off by a story that has no resolution, the novel's value lies both in its gentle wit and in its modest insights into unconventional characters who struggle to find purpose in their charmed lives.


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