Barney Conroy, a man who never met a confrontation-avoiding lie he didn’t like, who always chose complicated cover-ups over the simplest and easiest of responses to any given situation and who yet somehow ended up with the love of his life, Gloria, and a delightfully-sweet daughter Emily, is back as an all-new version of himself.
Well, not quite, but he’s getting there, and where Barney: A Novel and The Emily Dilemma, the first two books in this trilogy of an ordinary man doing painfully human and wholly-relatable things, were Laurel and Hardy-esque tales of cringeworthy happenings, The Best Version of Me centres more on the way Barney finally gets his collective you-know-what together.
While that does rob the third book in what you can only hope is a continuing series of some of its mirth-inducing existential hilarity, it also makes for a brilliantly-satisfying tale of what happens when a man painfully unable to act like a real grown-up – what is that exactly? Does anyone really know? – finally becomes one, with all the attendant riches and rewards (like marriage).
Of course Barney being Barney, and being surrounded by a bunch of lovably idiosyncratic people such as his mother, old flatmate Lucien and old friends like former workmate Achal, the path to fulfilling adulthood, much-delayed into his late Thirties, is never going to be painless, unfunny or straightforward, and so it is that The Best Version of Me is as entertainingly complicated and messy as you might expect.
“I follow his lead. As much as I’m not a fan of having strangers touch my body, I have had to subject myself to the occasional therapeutic massage. I find that if I go deep into my happy place—somewhere between Super Mario Land and a Bruce Springsteen concert—then I can manage okay. But I’ve never been to a spa so I don’t really know what to expect. I imagine it’s going to involve something more than your standard massage, but what, I don’t know.” (P. 82)
What lends the third instalment in the tales of Barney, who is so down-to-earth and relatably human that it’s impossible not to see yourself in him, is the way Sigley takes the most soap operatic of moments and makes them feel deep down real and true.
That takes some doing given the nature of some of the things thrown at Barney in the course of the novel, but Sigley, as usual, pulls it off with aplomb, mining the situations for their obvious humour but generating a kilo tonnage of emotional resonance into the bargain.
Take the appearance of his long-time ex-girlfriend Alice’s acquisition of a Christian new boyfriend Patrick. (Barney can’t help but deal with him since Alice is the mother of his daughter, Emily, the titular star of the second book in which Barney discovers he’s a dad.)
He’s devout as any new convert, and we’re treated to more than a few scenes where Patrick’s ardour for his faith is given a humourously-sceptical workout; and yet for all the digging and poking, this new person in Alice, and by extension, Barney’s life, is treated as a real person with a genuinely-good heart and not some scene-executing joke.
That pretty much sets the tone and feel for The Best Version of Me, which has some happiness-derailing situations in play such as the appearance of Barney’s long-disappeared father, the emergence of all kinds of family secrets, and Barney’s quest for a wild card slot at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, but which frames in the context of Barney’s far more mature approach to life.
While this means, as previously observed, that Barney’s life is not as sitcom-worthy a shambles as before, that’s more than made up for with a quite gentle rhythm that speaks of contentment, growth and happiness.
Don’t think that’s fun to read? Think again – Sigley invests The Best Version of Me with plenty of smile-inducing humour, only this time it’s less cringeworthy and more heartwarmingly-hilarious.
Thrown into the mix too though are quite a few really emotionally-intense moments where the humour is stripped bare and we see Barney, having been forced to confront life as it is by her therapist Jane (who only undergoes one intrusive What About Bob? moment), deal with a series of harrowing moments where all his new-found learning and understanding is really put to the test.
“We’re lying in her [Emily’s] bed reading our favourite book, Stick Man. She loves the story because it’s about a father who gets lost out in the world but returns safe to his family at the end. Emily says it’s about me because I wasn’t part of the first four years of her life. But here I am now.
I love it for the very same reason. I spent years wandering through life trying to get to a home I never knew existed. Until I met my little girl.” (P. 98)
Barney, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn comes through with flying colours; well, eventually, with everyone from Gloria to Lucien (yes, Lucien!) providing some life-affirming support.
But really this is about Barney finally taking the lessons of the first two books and going somewhere really wonderful with them, complete with a neverending slew of highly-enjoyable pop culture references, in the kind of way all of us do when we finally grow up after years of not quite getting it together.
While this means Barney isn’t quite the object of existential ridicule he once was, that’s totally fine; he is, in every other respect, a fine, delightful human being who has found his way through the emotional wilderness and and emerged into the kind of life of which he’s always dreamed.
After journeying with him through two novels full of emotional missteps and existential pratfalls, watching him come into his own is a delight, much as it would feel if it happened to any close friend (and honestly that’s how Barney feels by now) and it’s impossible not to spend The Best Version of Me happy that Barney, the kind, caring but life-inept every-person we have all been at one time or another, finally get the happiness he so richly deserves.