‘The One in a Million Boy’ is a novel by Monica Wood, telling the story of unlikely protagonists, misfits who become close to each other, finding out about themselves as they explore new relationships. Ona Vitkus is 104 years old and her friendship with the eponymous unnamed boy is the central focus: he is interviewing her about her life, on tape, and encouraging her to aim for records in the Guinness Book. Ona has lived since the beginning of the 1900s,so she has fascinating stories to tell, and it is through the flashbacks to her recollections that we learn about her experiences and how she has become a complex and rich character.
Perhaps the other most interesting central character besides Ona is Quinn, the boy’s father, who is as compulsive a guitarist as his son is a collector of data.Early in the novel, the boy dies of a rare illness and it is the people who loved him- Ona, Quinn, his ex wife, Belle- who develop and learn from the legacy of the eleven year old boy who touched their lives. Quinn is paying the penance for being a bad father: his need to play his guitar has kept him away from his son and Belle is wrecked by grief.
Quinn: playing guitar was the single occasion in his slight and baffling life when he had the power to deliver exactly the thing another human being wanted.
Some readers will compare this book to ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ because it is about an old lady. I enjoyed this book much more: ‘Elizabeth’ did not work for me so well in terms of the main characters but Ona is no stereotype: she is complex, charming and brave. She is flawed but not frail and she has learned to be resilient throughout her life and her past stories are utterly credible.
It is rare that we see Ona as simply an old lady: she is an independent and feisty woman, but Monica Wood carefully intersperses her strong moments with reminders that Ona has an ageing body. As readers, we respond with admiration but never pity.
What sets ‘The One in a Million Boy’ apart from many other novels in the same genre is how well written it is and how it never resorts to labels or stereotypes. The presence of the boy, with his love of facts and figures, is with us throughout the novel and it is his death which sets the other characters on the path to self discovery. Monica Wood’s story goes beyond loss and grief, though. Ona is an intriguing personality and her background story of immigration and integration is one which shapes her present day character. She may be old in years but she is always learning:
Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning
Wood tells us about the boy who visited her and helped her feed her birds:
He reminded her that she’d once found people fascinating. That she’d lived more than one life.
The boy’s interviews with Ona are one sided- we can only guess what he has asked her and that makes his presence, and somehow his absence, more poignant.
Although I found Quinn’s professional stroke of luck at the end of the story, and the result of ‘the song’ written by Ona’s husband a little implausible, the last few chapters of the novel make the whole book exceptional. There are readers who will be emotionally moved by the ending: it is surprising and cleverly contrived.’The One in a Million Boy’ is a layered story which charts the reconstruction of three people who believed their lives were damaged beyond repair. The final pages are inventive and shrewd and I was thrilled by Monica Wood’s dexterity in making the ending of the story very resonant.Ona says:
You know, one meets so many people, the years pass and pass, but there are certain times, certain people— . . . They take up room. So much room. I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory. A little nick. But certain others, they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan. . . .
This book comes highly recommended: it flies in the face of tokenist novels about characters who are ‘different’ and celebrates the real and valuable friendships which can come from people whose lives may appear, on the surface, to be incompatible.