Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Young Widower’s Handbook by Tom McAllister.
Tom McAllister opens The Young Widower’s Handbook by showcasing a young couple falling in love. It’s easy to fall into the trap of the overly sentimental by trying to make the love stand out with the use of flowery language and treating it as a unique experience. As if what is on the page is the ideal example of what love should be and generally this move will ring false. Thankfully, McAllister doesn’t fall into this trap. At one point during the book, Hunter, the main character, talks about how love isn’t about big romantic moments, but rather the reliability of being there for your partner. This book isn’t built on a grand gesture, but instead assembled through small moments giving us a full picture of this man’s marriage and, as a result, a reason for all his pain.
The novel has a simple plot: a 29-year-old man’s wife, Kait, dies unexpectedly after four years of marriage and, as a way to prove he can follow through on goals, he takes her ashes on a country-wide road trip out west. While he’s on the road he talks to the box of ashes as if she was alive and sitting next to him and through this focus we’re shown their backstory.
I’ve seen people describe this book as a romantic comedy and, while I don’t totally disagree, I do think the label sells McAllister’s novel short. It makes it sound like everything works out in the end, but that’s not necessarily the case. Closure and happiness are two different things and only one is needed for a successful story. Sure, it’s a comedy in the sense that The Young Widower’s Handbook has humor in it, but there aren’t any moments where we can see McAllister trying to make a joke. It’s a funny book, but not a joke book. The humor comes from the uncomfortable reality Hunter finds himself in and how he simply can’t get things quite right.
In the first chapter, Hunter is thinking about how much he loves Kait and how he trusts her completely, yet when she asks him what he’s thinking about he stumbles into telling her that he wants to spy on her. He then amends the thought, knowing it sounds creepy, but by the time it goes from his brain to his mouth it comes out as him wanting to watch her all the time. Kait tells him it’s still creepy, but that she loves him too. This is the epitome of the book: Hunter has trouble expressing his emotions, but Kait doesn’t have a problem understanding him on the EQ level, though she seems to be the only one. Along with the secondary characters, the reader also sees Hunter with stunted expressions and because of this he’s not all that likable of a character. Though, from the beginning Kait is likable and because we like her, we like Hunter by proxy. If he’s good enough for her—and she can see his lovable center—then we can trust he’s good enough for us.
The amount of time that passes after he sets out on the road is hard to determine because the pacing is inconsistent. If I found out it had been a few days, I wouldn’t have been surprised; but at the same time if it had been months, I wouldn’t have been surprised by that either. Though, I began to understand this was done intentionally because we’re following a broken man trying to come to terms with his grief. Time is malleable for him and doesn’t move the same while he’s mourning and, without putting a spotlight on it, McAllister is able to weave this idea in the narrative. About halfway through the book, we begin getting solid hints and information about the amount of time that has passed. This, again, is a way to show Hunter’s state of mind and how he is changing through the course of his unorthodox journey.
What is appealing about The Young Widower’s Handbook isn’t that it’s funny and entertaining, but that it is both of those things while being honest about grief. The road trip isn’t really about him taking a delayed honeymoon with his dead wife; it’s about him trying to come to terms with the person his dead wife believed him to be. This book is filled with organic relationships, moments, interactions, and characters. Even though it’s a sad book (I mean, what do you expect from the title?), it’s a book full of truths that speak to the full human experience, from happiness to sadness and everything in between.