Miss Ona Vitkus has – aside from three months in the summer of 1914 – lived unobtrusively, her secrets fiercely protected.
The boy, with his passion for world records, changes all that. He is eleven. She is one hundred and four years, one hundred and thirty three days old (they are counting). And he makes her feel like she might be really special after all. Better late than never…
Only it’s been two weeks now since he last visited, and she’s starting to think he’s not so different from all the rest.
Then the boy’s father comes, for some reason determined to finish his son’s good deed. And Ona must show this new stranger that not only are there odd jobs to be done, but a life’s ambition to complete . . .
When I received this book from the publisher, some of the advance praise compared it to Elizabeth Is Missing and The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry, neither of which I particularly enjoyed, so it sat on my shelf for a good long while. The moral of this story is, never listen to books being compared to other books. The One-In-A-Million Boy is a triumph!
The ‘boy’ of the title is only on our pages a very short while, but he runs through the story like a golden thread; touching everyone. We meet him when he is despatched to Ona vitkus’ house as part of his scout duties. Ona is 104 years old, a Lithuanian immigrant, who has spent the last few decades just coasting through life. As they get to know each other, the boy, with his love of order and lists and an obsession with the Guinness Book of Records, sparks something in Ona that she hasn’t felt for a long time: an interest in life. He gives her something to aim for. But when the boy doesn’t turn up for a couple of weeks, she thinks he’s just like all the others: he is not.
Enter Quinn. Father of the boy. Quinn is a guitarist. He has lived his life on the road, far removed from his wife and son, desperately trying to make it in a band. His wife, knowing that he never properly knew his son, sends him to Ona to actually complete something as his father. Quinn spends the book trying to atone for his parental failures. The friendship that blossoms between Quinn and Ona is the heartbeat of the book. I loved all the characters in this book, but it was Quinn that stole my heart, made me laugh and moved me to tears.
Belle, the boy’s mother, comes to us impossibly wracked with pain and grief, but with such a quiet dignity. Unable to move forward, she finds common ground with Ona and tries to help her make her dream come true.
Ted Ledbetter is the scoutmaster, a widower, a rock solid man who has his heart set on a new family.
In the end it is the boy who shows everyone how life should be lived and what really matters. It’s his voice that comes shining through, even in the one-sided tapes recorded with Ona about her life. He doesn’t need a name, he is bigger than that.
All the characters in this book are utterly compelling. I just wanted to spend my every waking moment with them. Their flaws, their trials, their efforts and their ultimate goodness just makes your heart ache and sing at the same time.
Whilst the book is sad and poignant, it never descends into sentimentality or depression. The prose is poetic and lilting but never out of reach. Some of the dialogue, especially between Ona and Quinn, crackles with humour:
Belle started the car – the getaway car now, it seemed – and fiddled with the controls. ‘Where’s the AC?’ ‘It’s a car,’ Ona said, ‘not a berth on the Queen Mary.’ She was still chafing from being referred to as a community project.
‘A wedding?’ Ona said. Her colour bloomed. He could see how someone might take her for, say, ninety-five, in exactly the right light.
Monica Wood has written an extraordinary tale of grief, loss, hope and friendship that will stay with me for a very long time. Don’t read this book for what it’s compared to, read it for itself, because its wonderful and uplifting and every page is a joy to read. You will love it…and well…if you don’t I’m not really sure we could be friends.
A massive *****
Many thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy.
The One-In-A-Million Boy is out on 5th April and you can purchase here