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 . . .
While we meet our ‘boy’ briefly early in the book, he soon disappears, but leaves a lasting impression on all those who came into contact with him, and leaves the reader wishing we could have spent a little longer with him.
The boy starts visiting Ona, a 104 year old Lithuanian, as part of a Scouting initiative helping locals in the community. As Ona has been on the receiving end of such ‘help’ before she is not particularly enthusiastic about being coupled with a boy who usually doesn’t really want to be helping anyone, and especially not someone as elderly and challenging as Ona. However, this boy’s attention to detail and keenness starts to soften the world weary Ona. His obsession with Guinness World Records and enthusiasm for lists and details proves to be the unlikely subject that draws them together, as they look for records that Ona could be eligible for. As part of the scouting initiative he also has to interview Ona about her life. For Ona, she has found someone who takes a non judgemental interest in her memories and opinions. As Ona starts to engage with life again, the inevitable happens, the boy stops coming.
So surprise, surprise it turns out that this boy wasn’t so different after all or so she thinks. Then out of the blue his father, Quinn, turns up in his place. From hereon in, despite his absence we begin to learn so much more about the boy, his family and Ona as she reluctantly allows Quinn to finish what the boy had started.
I really enjoyed this book, it was an unlikely but compelling friendship that was growing between Ona and the boy, based on their abilities to see beyond age and just accept each other for what they were. When it was cut short, it was easy to feel for Ona and see why she would be so disappointed and disillusioned, especially as Quinn initially doesn’t reveal why the boy has stopped coming. Even when she is party to what has happened she is reluctant to invest her time and feelings again, but with the boy as a focus, they gradually both learn to let people in and open themselves up to the world.
Through the book, the boy manages to emerge through his parents memories, his incessant notebooks filled with lists and his unheard questions that he asks Ona in their taped interviews, a very clever device, which reveals so much without words. His enthusiasm and innocence bring out the best in others as they strive to put right the things they should have done, and they start to look forward rather than constantly looking back. As the book progresses it is impossible not to want the best outcomes for Ona, Quinn and Belle, the boy’s mother, as their characters develop and draw you into their hopes and fears.
It is a book that while quirky, still feels real and doesn’t fall into the trap of being sentimental. While it has it’s moments of grief and sadness, it is essentially an uplifting book. It has a lot to teach us about accepting ourselves and others for what we are, and appreciating friendships and relationships however unconvential they may appear. While we never learn what the boy was called, and don’t hear a lot directly from him, his personality and ‘voice’ imbues the book with a sense of hope and joy, which is something we could all learn from.
I received a copy of this book via NetGalley in return for an honest review.