Review: Whatever Makes You Happy

By Paul Lester, May 8, 2008

By William Sutcliffe
Bloomsbury, £10.99

Don’t be fooled by the none-more-gentile name. William Sutcliffe is a north Londonbred Jewish boy. He was in the same year at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School in Elstree as comedian Sacha Baron Cohen and his first novel in 1996, New Boy, was a near-autobiographical mix of fact and fiction — including “real” details (such as the Habs Serve And Obey motto) — which describes a teenager’s entry into an English independent-school sixth form.

Continuing the narrative thread, Sutcliffe followed this with his best known work so far, Are You Experienced? (1997), a pre-university, gap-year novel in which a group of young brits travel to India, while The Love Hexagon (2000) concerned the sex and romantic lives of six twentysomething Londoners.

Now, maintaining the sequence (give or take 2004’s Bad Influence, about a miscreant 10-year-old), comes Whatever Makes You Happy. Over 300 pages, Sutcliffe tells the story of three suburban mothers who have known each other since their respective sons were babies. They decide to spend a week with their terminally adolescent 34-year-old boys, to try to find out why they never write or call and, more significantly, why they have yet to marry or bear them grandchildren.

Sutcliffe’s style evokes the reveries of Tony Parsons or Nick Hornby — not for him the chilling reminiscences of, say, Paul Morley’s Nothing, in which the author grows up in the shadow of his father’s suicide. The mood of Whatever Makes You Happy is light and humorous, even when the going gets rough. Of the three sons, Matt, the editor of lads’ magazine BALLS!, whose interests include video games and bedding under-age models, and Paul, who has secretly fathered a child with a lesbian couple, are almost cartoon-like characters.

The third son, Daniel, a Jewish North Londoner who runs away to Edinburgh (where Sutcliffe now lives) in order to forget his one true love, is more realistically drawn and thus the most compelling. Unfortunately, the premise — three mothers landing on their grown-up sons’ doorsteps, hoping to sort out their messed-up love lives in a week — just doesn’t convince.

It might strike a chord with those parents who yearn for a closer relationship with their adult children, but its whimsical comedy may not resonate with the younger, ecstasy-damaged, rudderless This Life generation who are surely Sutcliffe’s target audience.

Paul Lester is writing a biography of post-punk band Gang Of Four

    Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011