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Turned Out Well
on 17 January 2015
30 is one of those funny ages, where you can still be told “oh, you’re still young” by people who have reached it, but where teenagers and people in their early 20s can make you feel dreadfully old. 30 is also one of those ages you use as a deadline. When you’re young, it seems so far away and so adult that you can safely say “I’ll do this by the time I’m 30”, knowing you have plenty of time. But as that deadline grows nearer, you wonder if your life is what it’s all made out to be.
I’d had a copy of Mike Gayle’s “Turning Thirty” for a while, as I’d heard good things about his writing and had found a cheap 2nd hand copy. But it was only as that venerable age approached that I decided I’d perhaps best give it a read. After all, I didn’t know what 30 had in store, and could do with a little help. So, the week before the big day, I started taking it to work to read on the bus, joking with colleagues that it was my instruction manual for the big day.
What a mistake that turned out to be!
Matt Beckford is looking forward to turning thirty. He set up his goals for that birthday years ago and, as it approaches, he has the life he always wanted. He has a decent career, a wonderful partner and he’s going to be spending his 30th birthday in New York, and not his home town of Birmingham which, for Matt, is the ideal situation.
Of course, nothing goes to way you plan it. 6 months before the big day, his girlfriend decides they should go their separate ways. This, because they’re living together in New York, and it’s her town rather than his, begins a series of changes. To assist the parting, he asks for a transfer away from New York and heads back to Birmingham to stay with his parents for a while before moving on again to his new job. Unfortunately for Matt, this means he’ll be spending his 30th birthday in his home town, without his ideal job and without a girlfriend. Indeed, without all the things that threatened to make turning thirty bearable in the first place.
Returning home, Matt starts trying to get his old group of friends together again, despite having not seen any of them for a number of years. He discovers that whilst everyone had their dreams at thirteen, no two people’s lives are the same all those years on. Many have jobs; some of them even the job they wanted. Some have married and have children. And one, as they discover to their sadness, will never turn thirty, having died some years before.
What potentially sets Mike Gayle apart from a lot of the other writers working in the chick- and bloke-lit genres at the moment is that he’s still in touch with reality. A lot of the situations in “Turning Thirty” could really happen to any of us. It’s maybe a little unlikely that all of them would happen to the same person and certain things, especially the ease with which he manages to track down his old friends and how easily their relationship seems to slip back into focus as if they’d never lost touch, are a little unrealistic, but by and large, this is real life. Whilst you can’t see yourself in the scene, you do care a little about the characters and, more importantly, you want to know what’s going to happen next. It’s a little like watching the soaps on TV. You know it’s not really life, but it’s near enough to keep you involved.
Gayle’s writing style helps out a lot here, as well. He writes with a kind of easy, laid back style that mirrors the pace of many of our lives, particularly when they’re in a hiatus, like Matt’s is. Somehow, though, it’s tough to take your eyes away from. Again like the soaps, you know that something is likely to happen fairly soon but, unlike some of them, it’s easy enough on the eye that you keep going with it.
However, for all its good points, reading “Turning Thirty” depressed me. As Matt observes in the book, “I think the art of taking [turning 30] well is being happy with what you’ve got”. Reading this when I did, a few days before I was thirty, and not being entirely happy with my lot, made it depressing. I was a little too involved in the story, not for the sake of the story, but for how it compared to my own life. Sadly, my own life didn’t match up to Matt’s, despite the situation he found himself in and that proved highly depressing. Had I read the book four years ago, when it was first published, I think I might have appreciated it a lot better.
This may not be the case for everyone, however. If you’re outside the 25-35 age range, this will be an amusing look forwards, or backwards, to that age where everything should be settled by. For the over 30s it may act as reminiscence, for the under 30s, it may be motivational, as I don’t think any of us want to celebrate our 30th birthday and then go back to our mother’s.
If you’re within that age range, you need to think carefully before you read this. If life has turned out the way you hoped it would, then read this book. It’ll be a light hearted read about other people’s lives. With the broad range of characters and how their lives have turned out, there’s a pretty fair chance you’ll recognise yourself in here somewhere, which is never a bad thing. Even if there isn’t, it’s a pretty good read anyway.
If you’re anything like me, however, and want more, or different, from what you have at 30, then stay clear. There is no catharsis here, just the realisation that even when a fictional character loses all he has; he still manages to have a more fulfilling time that you’re having. It’s a depressing experience, and you’d be far better off reading about someone blessed with luck even worse than your own.
But when you reach 35, or when you are in a situation where you’re happy with what you have, by all means come back and have a read. Depressing though it may be if read at the wrong time, it’s still an easy, enjoyable novel. It’s not Mike Gayle’s fault that I happened to pull this book off my shelf at potentially the worst possible moment for it and I can see this is something I would have enjoyed immensely at any other time.
Incidentally, if you’re around 30 and you don’t think you could stand the hurt this book may cause you, I can recommend Mike Gayle’s others. Despite what he’s done to me of late, he’s quite possibly the best bloke-lit author I’ve read, with a lightness of touch and a feeling of reality that Hornby and Parsons seem to lack. Give him a chance, as even I can see that he didn’t depress me on purpose, it just happened that way.
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