A strange tale of sexual abuse set in contemporary Dublin.
Victor Forde is a failed writer; began writing rock reviews, and branched into talk radio.
Fell in love and married Rachel when they were in their twenties. She went on to become a famous British culinary expert, 'Meals In Heels', and star and media celebrity of a television show similar to The Apprentice.
Now middle aged, Victor and Rachel are separated and Victor lives in a small apartment (in or near a brothel?) near the sea near Dublin. He tries to establish friendships at a local pub. He's trying to make it 'his pub', when he is accosted by a loutish man who claims to know him. Even after learning this man's name, Ed Fitzpatrick, Victor can't place him. The man claims to have a 'hot' sister, and this seems to ring a bell with Victor.
"The reason for the novel’s title is revealed early on. In a classroom full of mischief-makers, Brother Murphy, a small but violent teacher who exercised power over his students with ruthless cruelty, had always left Victor alone, his explanation coming in eight words that would define the boy’s schooldays and make him the object of scorn among his peers: 'Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile'.”
Victor's obvious loneliness at the pub-
"I stayed up at the bar a few times," he begins, "but I didn't want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to."
" His ex-wife, Rachel, is a beloved TV cooking-show host and feminist activist; their parting seems to have been amicable, and they sign their text messages with an X. Victor finds a pub, declares it his local, falls in with some friendly men who are charmed by his nearness to celebrity and his tall tales. He’s starting over, and it stings; but he can’t help finding reasons for optimism."
Description of Ed-
"Fleshy, vulgar, simultaneously bumptious and passive-aggressive, Fitzpatrick is perpetually dressed in a secondhand pink shirt and a pair of shorts — “the ones with the pockets on the sides for shotgun shells and dead rabbits” — and always sits a little too close. Victor doesn’t remember him, but the initial impression is viscerally repellent. “I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”
Victor strikes up a relationship at the pub with Brenda. She is curious about Rachel and seems to be involved with Victor partly because her husband is away much of the time. He works in England, although he could very easily transfer back to Ireland.
Description of Brenda-
“She was different. She wasn’t Rachel. She was fattish and human. And curious.”
In the end, Ed claims to 'be' Victor. Maybe this means that Victor's character has repressed part of his true nature due to the molestation. He claims that it was only once; The Head Brother (principal) grabbed him by the genitals.
This Christian school is described by Victor as a virtual ' nest of sexual impropriety'.
Victor's recollection of life at the school-
"I was often terrified and I laughed so much I went blind," he says. There's the threat of being struck by one of the teachers or mocked by a fellow student for some imperceptible difference. "The wrong word, the wrong shirt, the wrong band," he notes, "could destroy you." When a French teacher says, "Victor Forde, I can never resist your smile," Victor knows immediately, "I was doomed."
"this strange man at the front of the classroom flirting — I suppose — with me. It left me wondering what was wrong with my smile."
Plot turns on this major incident-
"Victor remembers not only this abuse, but the moment of its original excavation from memory, during the happy days with Rachel. He wakes violently from sleep beside her — “I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart” — and tells her everything. The abuse, we realize, is partially responsible for many of his life’s failures: his writer’s block, his ineptness as a husband and father. Eventually he confesses the abuse, impulsively, on the radio, earning both public sympathy and derision."
"He contradicts himself, doubling back and changing his story. He suddenly admits, out of nowhere, that he and Rachel were never really married; Victor just calls her his wife to avoid having to explain their unconventional union. And what about Victor’s son? We know he has one, but we never hear about him. Are they estranged? Did something happen to drive them apart? And why, specifically, did the marriage — the non-marriage — end?"
Doyle's success in writing the book-
"For one horrible moment, we get a sense of the victim's unspeakable confusion, the terror that diverts a life and wrecks a mind."