Happy un-birthday

Dear Book Doctor,
My partner is turning 40. He keeps saying how old he feels and that he doesn’t want to have a party, but I know he’ll be disappointed if the occasion isn’t marked appropriately. What’s the best strategy?
MC, Paris

“But after all, what are birthdays?” asks Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. “Here today and gone tomorrow.”

Your partner might agree – yet he is clearly concerned about the passing decade. However, in fiction – as in life – worrying about age is rarely an elevating experience. Just think of Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray.

You might remind your beau that it’s also a rather unattractive trait. Mark Haddon’s annoying protagonist in A Spot of Bother convinces himself he has cancer and descends into a spiral of hypochondria and self-pity; the figure at the centre of Mike Gayle’s Turning Thirty bears out the neuroses of the book’s title.

Yet 40 is “the old age of youth”, as Victor Hugo put it. It’s understandable to feel just a little depressed by the occasion. Perhaps the best strategy, then, is to follow Humpty Dumpty’s example in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: celebrate your partner’s “un-birthday”.

“There are 364 days when you might get un-birthday presents”, Humpty tells Alice, “and only one for birthday presents.”

With an un-birthday party everyone will win: you get to throw your partner a bash, his friends get to have fun – and by the time he’s explained for the 80th time what an “un-birthday” is, I predict he’ll be fed up enough to let you hold a more traditional celebration next time round.


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