The teen crush tends to flare hot and flame out. Rarely does it endure into adulthood, as happens, sort of, between Ellis and Michael in this affecting short novel.
“Tin Man,” by Londoner Sarah Winman, crosses the Atlantic on strong reviews in the British press. If your cup of tea includes a story where delirious joy mixes page by page with cruel circumstance, you will find much to like.
Orphaned by death and desertion, Michael lands in Ellis’ Oxford world when each boy is 12. Michael is sent to live with his kindly grandmother, Mabel, who has a shop in town.
The boys quickly become besties. Precocious Michael charms and forms a close bond with Ellis’ mom, Dora. She encourages the artistic leanings of Michael and her son, insisting that “men and boys should be capable of beautiful things.” It’s wishful thinking, as Dora’s husband is a sexist, abusive (and one-dimensional) jerk.
Winman makes much of Dora’s prized possession, a copy of a Van Gogh painting of sunflowers. In a too-pat metaphor, the painter’s use of complementary colors is compared to the personalities of quiet, handsome Ellis and effusive Michael. The painting is stretched thin as a stand-in for other polarities.
The boys care for Dora during an undisclosed illness. Still teens, their closeness becomes sexual following Dora’s funeral and for a few years afterward. An idyllic trip to the south of France at age 19 sets up the possibility of a future together, a prospect that fades when they return to dreary old England. Michael is gay, Ellis not so much.
Later, when Ellis weds Annie (the two “met cute” in a way that seems torn from a Norman Rockwell painting), Michael again befriends the woman closest to his first and truest love. For some years, they are a happy threesome.
When Michael leaves Oxford for London, the friendship disintegrates. Michael narrates a section about his life and loves in the time of AIDS. Sans Michael, Ellis and Annie fall into marital doldrums.
More tragedy strikes. The heaping on of heartbreak is milked by Winman’s tendency to have characters cry while swimming, or gaze skyward at dusk, or meditate on a field of sunflowers.
For me, “Tin Man” works better as a sort of universalized fable of love and loss, and not as a story sprung from realistic psychology and fully examined individuals.
Claude Peck is a former editor at the Star Tribune.
By: Sarah Winman.
Publisher: Putnam, 213 pages, $23.