Written and set shortly after WW2, it tells the story of Hilary, an English widower and poet, looking for his son in Paris, whom he last saw on the day of his birth nearly five years earlier. It is incredibly poignant, but in a very light, natural way and, very unusually, nearly had me in tears towards the end.
Hilary has many unresolved emotions about his troubled relationship with his mother (characterised by "hostility and bitterness" from the first page), the certainty of his wife’s death and the uncertainty of his son’s existence, and this translates into awkwardness between him and Pierre (friend of his wife’s who tries to find his son) and indeed with everyone else. He subsequent relationships with a couple of women show him in a very bad light.
The boy who may be his son is living in an orphanage and Hilary meets him and takes him out for the afternoon several days running. Jean is bright and endearing, but Hilary is unsure whether he is his son and equally unsure whether he wants him to be. It is a sort of love story, a bit like a blind date: mutual uncertainty, not knowing rules of how to behave, both wary of being hurt and unsure what they want. For Hilary, both as a child and as a possible parent, I suppose the key question is whether any parent better than no parent? Which of them is the boy of the title?
Hilary doesn’t know how to be a father, is unsure whether he wants to be ("I am being destroyed" by upsetting his simple, ordered, private and unemotional life) and struggles to comprehend the degree of deprivation in Jean’s life thus far and to what extent he should enrich it. When he tries, by buying red gloves, they don't fit. He weighs up duty and possible means of escape from fatherhood and as the reader, you inevitably wonder what would you do, given that the child may not be your own.
The descriptions of France very soon after the end of the war have a rawness that a historical novel written nowadays would struggle to achieve: not just the physical scars, but lingering distrust between suspected collaborators and suspected resistance, corruption arising from black marketeering, loosening morals etc.
Real (Cona) coffee is explicitly mentioned in chapter 1 and I think Hilary's reaction to what he is served in the orphanage highlights the contrast with his own entrenched material privilege. He has suffered emotional trauma in many ways, but he has always been cushioned by the comfort of good things. He doesn't even need to work. Consequently, he takes them for granted, sometimes reacts like a truculent child when he is denied them and giving such treats is an automatic and in some senses easy (no emotional cost) response for him. Hilary wants good things and is used to feeling entitled to them. He knows it is morally wrong to buy black market goods, but comfort food/drink trumps it because he is too immature to do otherwise.
There is so much in this story that the reader doesn't know (especially details about Hilary's relationship with his dead father and living mother), but that echoes the unknowns in Hilary's life, the biggest of which is never knowing for sure whether Jean is his son (not an issue with normal adoption). Hilary has some self-awareness ("my writing and my reading and all the other substitutes I have found for emotion" and "I must guard myself against emotion"), but is rarely able to overcome his weakness, snobbery and utilitarian approach to other people.
The ending is superbly apt.
With the right director it would make a great, atmospheric film, but so far it’s only been done as a Bing Crosby musical (ugh!).