Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh

Don’t talk like we were stuck in a lift.

Why would I be missing you so violently?

We’re all the hero when directing the scene,

But therapy for liars is a giant ice cream.

(from “Montparnasse” by Elbow)

I broke one of my cardinal reviewing rules—write about the book while it’s still fresh in your mind—and waited two weeks after finishing Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners before writing it up. Luckily the Elbow stanza above (Guy Garvey’s lyrics are like poetry, after all) brought back to me some of the themes I want to explore: how you can miss someone you barely know, the way that ties ebb and shift such that your blood kin are strangers and the unrelated become like family, and how a narcissistic personality can use coercion and deception to get his or her way. Plus there’s the ice cream metaphor of the last line, a link to the terrific cover on finished copies of the novel—not on my proof, alas.

The novel is presented as Sonny Anderson’s extended letter to the mother he doesn’t remember. He’s lived with his guardian, a Brit named Thomas Hardiker, in Redondo Beach, California for 11 years; before that they were in Brazil with Sonny’s father. A month ago, on his twenty-first birthday, Sonny received the astounding news that he’s a millionaire thanks to a trust fund from his late father, Robin Agelaste-Bim, better known as Guru Bim. His mother is Sarah Anderson: once a Scottish housewife, now untraceable. Despite his youth, Sonny has been a meth addict and kicked the habit through NA. This kid’s done a lot of living already, but sets out on a new adventure to learn about his parents from those who knew them. And while he’s in Britain, he’ll squeeze in some tourism related to his favorite movie, Shaun of the Dead.

Starting with Sonny’s plane ride to Heathrow, the book is in the present tense, which makes you feel you’re taking the journey right along with him. Although this isn’t being marketed as young adult fiction, it has the same vibe as some YA quest narratives I’ve read: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, both of David Arnold’s books, and Nicola Yoon’s The Sun is Also a Star. Sonny is more bitter and world-weary than those teen protagonists, but you still get the slang and the pop culture references along with the heartfelt emotions.

Sonny’s first visit is to Torquay octogenarian Doris Henry, who was the Agelaste-Bims’ servant and Robin’s wet nurse circa 1970. Next up: London and Ruth Williams, whom Sonny’s mother, then going by Suki, recruited into a LifeForce meditation group. Ruth remembers taking against Guru Bim immediately: “He was faking it to get in with Suki. I understood the attraction, though; those narcissistic types are always charming.” Bim and Suki formed a splinter group, Trembling Leaves and soon announced Suki’s pregnancy, but things went awry and Suki fled to Scotland with her ex-boyfriend, Andrew.

This slightly madcap biographical trip around Britain also takes in Brighton, Scotland and Keswick in the Lake District. At each stop Sonny’s able to fill in more about his past, but it’s the letters Thomas sent along for him that contain the real shockers. It’s an epistolary within an epistolary, really, with Thomas’s series of long, explanatory letters daubing in the details and anchoring Sonny’s sometimes-earnest, sometimes-angry missive to his mother.

I loved tagging along on this kooky hero’s quest. My one small criticism about an otherwise zippy novel is that there is a lot of backstory to absorb, from Sonny’s former drug use onwards. For an American expat, though, it was especially fun to watch Sonny trying to get used to some peculiarities of Britain: “apparently it’s compulsory to eat potato chips and on Brit trains” and “We argue about which floor she lives on. I say second and Ruth says first, until we realise we mean the same thing.”

In a year that opened with a narcissist being installed in the White House and will soon see the publication of a new book about cult leader Jim Jones (The Road to Jonestown by Jeff Guinn, April 11th), McDonagh’s picture of Guru Bim is sure to strike a chord. As Ruth tells Sonny, in Ancient Greek an agelast was someone with no sense of humor; and she accused Bim of being “a manipulative charlatan.”

For Sonny, whose very name places him in relationship to others, coming to grips with who he came from means deciding to live differently and be content with his own piecemeal family, including Thomas, the Great Dudini (their dog), and maybe even a cool old lady like Ruth. You’ll love spending time with them all, and I imagine you’ll get a particular kick out of this if you like Shaun of the Dead. (Whisper it: I’ve never seen it.)

Narcissism for Beginners was published in the UK on March 9th. With thanks to Unbound for the review copy.

My rating:

Martine McDonagh was an artist manager in the music industry for 30 years and now leads the Creative Writing & Publishing MA at West Dean College, Sussex. This is her third novel, following I Have Waited, and You Have Come and After Phoenix.

13 responses

  1. anglogermantranslations | Reply

    American usage often confuses me – if I were someone looking for family in the States, I’d misunderstand quite a lot, because British English and British ways is what I’m used to. I know the differences (e. g. counting storeys and all that) in theory, but when it comes to abbreviations and idioms, I’m often at a loss (and so are many Brits I’m told). So please kindly explain what this actually means, “He kicked it through NA”. NA = Narcotics Anonymous? Kicked it though = he never gave it up? Or he confessed it? TIA! 😉 In other words, I can put myself in Sonny’s place.


    1. Hi there! I forget, having lived between the two cultures for more than a decade now, that some things aren’t obvious, so I’m sorry for not making it clear. Yes, I was referring to Narcotics Anonymous. To “kick a habit” is to overcome it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. anglogermantranslations

        Thank you, Rebecca. It’s always best to ask a native. 🙂


  2. After almost 20 years in the US, I still don’t know why they call the ground floor the first floor! 😉 I like the quote you start with!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wouldn’t normally quote pop song lyrics, but for once they seemed appropriate!


  3. Oh, that DOES sound like fun. Just the title alone, but the story, too, from the sounds of it. I’m not a huge Shaun of the Dead fan, but I’ve seen it a couple of times (that’s not contradctory, really, is it?) and I can see where that might add an interesting flavour to the story as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you were willing to see it more than once I think you count as a fan 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That sounds like a fun book and a good read for any ex-pats going in either direction!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely! I loved the Anglo-American element.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This sounds like fun! Narcissism is always a fascinating topic. And now I’m trying to think how we number our floors here in Canada. I think the ground floor is usually called ‘Main’, and then it goes up from there. That sounds like the British way, doesn’t it? Which, I guess makes sense!


    1. Yeah, it was lots of fun! I’m not surprised that Canada still numbers floors the British way. You seem to have thrown off fewer British traditions than we Americans did 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] of Wildfell Hall (1848) as my classic for March. I’m glad I read it, not least because, like Narcissism for Beginners, it’s an epistolary within an epistolary – bonus! I imagine most of my readers will already be […]


  7. […] for the Man Booker Prize. I’ve reviewed another previous Unbound title, Martine McDonagh’s Narcissism for Beginners, and will be participating in the blog tour for Lev Parikian’s Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? […]


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