The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence

The Empathy Problem

Rating: ★★★★★

I loved Gavin Extence’s first two novels (The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The Mirror World of Melody Black), so I was absolutely delighted to receive a copy of his latest novel, The Empathy Problem, to review.

At 32, Gabriel Vaughn seems to have it all.  Film star good looks, a seven figure salary thanks to his work as a hedge fund manager, a Ferrari, a swanky apartment in London.  Not born into money, he’s worked hard to get where he is, and looks down contemptuously on… well, everyone, really.  Anyone who hasn’t achieved the same as he has at least.  For Gabriel, a person’s worth is measured in a very literal sense – their earnings, their savings and their assets.

But then he is diagnosed as having a brain tumour.  Situated deep in his brain, it’s inoperable, and whilst certain treatments may help, his time is now numbered in months rather than years.

But he’s beginning to notice a change in himself.  Whereas before he could remain aloof, detached and uncaring of the general masses, he is now beginning to feel all sorts of new emotions, and begins to see that his lifestyle isn’t as rich as he once thought.

In Alex Woods and Melody Black, Extence created two very different yet entirely sympathetic characters.  Characters whose side you were on no matter what.  In Gabriel Vaughn, however, he has taken a different tack and has presented someone who is, to put it bluntly, an absolute prick.  The opening chapters give an insight into the man Gabriel has worked hard to be – haughty, uncaring, judgemental.  Rich.  I think it’s incredibly difficult to evoke sympathy for such a character – the brain tumour is unfortunate, of course, particularly at such a young age, yet I didn’t expect to become quite as attached to Gabriel as I did.  As he begins to change, I found it impossible not to like him, and he had my full sympathy by the end of the novel.  He’s far from perfect, and makes some bizarre decisions along the way (which I won’t spoil for you) but he does become likeable.

The idea of second chances and character redemption presented in The Empathy Problem isn’t an entirely new one (A Christmas Carol springs to mind).  This isn’t just a rehash of an old idea, however, and The Empathy Problem has plenty in it that makes it unique.  I loved the inclusion of recent real world events, particularly the protesters camped out in front of St Paul’s Cathedral (that’s five years ago, would you believe), and I loved how this added to the novel and to Gabriel’s development as he begins to interact with people who lead very different lifestyles to his own.

The Empathy Problem is a fantastic novel that looks at whether it’s ever too late to change who we are and how we act, and interact, with the world and those around us.  Injected with what I’m coming to see as Extence’s trademark humour, this is a beautiful, heart-warming novel and I’m not ashamed to admit that I shed a tear or two during my reading of it – a reaction that very few novels prompt in me.

The Empathy Problem was published by Hodder & Stoughton on 11 August – many thanks to Ruby Mitchell for the review copy.

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