Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession

I didn’t plan to read this book for Reading Ireland Month 2021, it just worked out that way. I might even squeak in during the appropriate week, as March 1st through 7th is dedicated to Contemporary Irish Novels. Which this certainly is. Though it didn’t feel that way while reading; it seemed rather timeless and placeless. I can’t tell if Leonard and Hungry Paul live in a big city or a small town, let alone whether they actually live in Ireland or in the UK. References to “lollipop ladies” and “sweets” only give me a very general idea, geographically. Leonard’s open-concept workplace feels pretty urban, but then, the Chamber of Commerce holding a contest is a big event that everyone’s talking about, which feels painfully small-town. As for contemporariness, the contest in question involves inventing a new way to sign off emails, so we’re squarely in the 21st century, and people have phones, but no one spends much time online. And I suspect that guys like Leonard and Hungry Paul would probably be at least somewhat, if not Extremely, Online.

Or perhaps not. Leonard and Hungry Paul are, to varying degrees, operating outside of society. So perhaps it makes sense that we don’t know exactly where and when they are situated, as they probably don’t feel too grounded in their particular time and place either. The plot, such as it is, follows the thirty-something friends as they make tentative steps into society, one in the expected way (a new romance) and one… not (it involves mimes).

Hilariousness does ensue. This is a very funny book, in a quiet and not at all snarky way. Hession pokes fun at his heros, but we never feel embarrassed for them. Nor are there any real antagonists to deride or ridicule. I guess Hession’s target is the benign ridiculousness of modern life, and he uses two characters who don’t quite understand it all themselves to show us how bizarre it is. Sometimes the humour didn’t quite land with me (a joke about expiry dates and grocery stores was way too drawn out), but sometimes it was perfect (the running gag about Leonard accidentally wearing a pajama top to work and possibly starting a trend.)

It’s best that I didn’t read many reviews before diving in. I only read this rave and didn’t even read it the whole way through it, as I felt it was getting to specific (I wouldn’t say spoilery) and I wanted to wait and read it myself. Had I looked into the broader critical response to L&HP, and found it was being classified as “up lit”, I probably would have backed away. “Up lit” puts me in mind of Matt Haig, or books with titles like The Untimely Life and Loves of Quirkily Named Character, Who Is Doing Quite Well, Thanks. In the end, I found it more poignant than unlifting. There’s a happy and hopeful ending, but I do wonder how our hapless heros are going to fare through middle age, honestly.

Though focused on a male friendship, there are actually women in this book. Which is great… kind of. Leonard’s late mother is described as patient, kind, thoughtful; a perfect mother. Hungry Paul’s mother is, similarly, endlessly patient and accommodating. Leonard’s (maybe) girlfriend is another saintly mother, totally devoted to her son, while also verging on manic pixie dreamgirl-dom. And then there’s Hungry Paul’s sister, who gets so much narrative space I was confused as to why the book wasn’t called Leonard and Hungry Paul and Grace. She’s a bit more nuanced than the mother figures, but falls into several stock female character types (bridezilla, bossy older sister, stressed out career woman). As a perceptive review in the Irish Times puts it, the women don’t “get to participate in the triumph,” as they’re too busy playing out their assigned roles. They don’t get to opt out.

But I suppose there’s a whole genre of women opting out of the mainstream in quirky ways. Once the hype dies down, maybe I’ll try Convenience Store Woman, or even Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. In the meantime, Leonard and Hungry Paul are completely fine as well, and that’s fine with me.

12 comments

  1. banff1972

    Had never heard of Up Lit!

    Enjoyed this, Laura. Excellent points about the limitations of the female characters. I wasn’t enough attuned to that in my review.

  2. Cathy746books

    Really great review Laura, I actually haven’t read this yet and I’ll admit, it’s because of that whole ‘up-lit’ thing, but it’s good to hear that there is something more here. Even if the female characters aren’t that well-rounded.

  3. Rachel

    I’ve been curious about this one for a while but I get the impression it might be a bit… twee? Is that accurate? And bummer about the female characters but it does sound like it’s worth a read otherwise.

  4. annelogan17

    Up Lit!!!! That’s what people are calling it? I was so curious about this new genre, and although I generally enjoy it, I never knew how to talk about it, other than ‘like Where’d You Go Bernadette” kind of quirky stuff. Also, re: the comment above, ‘twee’ sounds like the perfect way to describe a certain kind of book too 🙂

    • lauratfrey

      Yeah this is sort of in that weird but not too weird, funny category like Where’d You Go. That book made me mad, and I can’t even remember why, lol!

  5. BookerTalk

    This was chosen by our book club for last month and its fair to say it met with mixed reactions. Some people loved it, others (including myself) thought it was disappointing. The problem was the lack of variety in pace – I felt we were constantly being teased that something was going to happen (like the wedding would get called off) but it never did.
    That sister was a very very irritating character

    • lauratfrey

      I could see that. I was sort of relieved that it wasn’t either the wedding being called off, or, my guess, something *dramatic* happening at the wedding. And yes Grace annoyed me, more in the way she was presented. I saw a lot of myself in her, honestly! But the story didn’t *do*’ anything with her, if you know what I mean.

  6. Naomi

    Ever since I first saw this book, I’ve wanted to know why Paul is hungry…

    Thank you for this review – I’ve been curious to know what type of book this is. I think this is the first time I’ve heard the term Up-Lit.

  7. Pingback: Reading Ireland Month Week 2 Round-Up!
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