‘Breaking Dad’ book review – an extraordinary tale wryly told

Tabitha Potts is a writer who lives in East London, an area which inspires much of her work. She has had several short stories published in print and online

The narrator of this sometimes very funny and sometimes heart-breaking story is James Lubbock. It’s 1997 when the story starts, and nineteen-year-old James’ apparently very conventional Jewish father Richard broke the news to him over dinner at a favourite French restaurant that he was actually gay, and this was the main reason he and James’ mother had split up.  

Shocked by this revelation but hoping having a gay dad meant he was a bit more ‘edgy’ now, James went out for dinner with his mother Marilyn a few days later, thinking she might need consolation. Instead, she told him that she too was gay – and about to move in with her girlfriend Ruth.

It’s a great opening for anyone’s life story, and it’s handled with wry humour. James’ dad sold the family home in Stanmore, bought four flats in Limehouse and started running his business (as a coin dealer) from one of them. He was also getting involved in other activities, as James discovered when he went clubbing with him at the Fridge and realised his dad was taking Ecstasy.

The next day James asked him about the large bag of weed he saw on his desk the night before. His dad claimed he just ‘gave’ it to his friends and offered to get James some weed whenever he wanted. His dad, at 59, was enjoying life as a single gay man, getting into house music and clubbing. James wanted him to be happy.

To James’ relief, his mother’s relationship with Ruth was stable and harmonious. By contrast, his dad’s personal life appeared chaotic. James was embarrassed when he visited Limehouse and accidentally discovered his dad’s spare bedroom was being used for group sex and bondage.

However, when Richard invited James to come with him on a cruise ship sailing from America to the UK (Marilyn turned him down saying they would drive each other crazy), James jumped at the chance to spend a bit more time with his father.

On their arrival in the US, during a trip to see his favourite band, The Darkness, James became worried about Richard, who was high all night and sleeping all day. His Dad mentioned what drugs he was taking to another Darkness fan – crystal meth. It was a successful cruise, although James was not happy to be mistaken on one occasion for his Dad’s toy-boy and the only girl who seemed interested in him was chatted up by Des O’Connor instead.

Back in London, James found himself a steady girlfriend, Vicki, on Jdate (a dating site for Jewish singletons) and it looked as though things were settling down, when Marilyn told him the devastating news that she had cancer. James tried to support Marilyn and Ruth as they dealt with Marilyn’s diagnosis.

Meanwhile Richard was becoming increasingly addicted to crystal meth – saying it helped him meet ‘interesting people’ – which he dealt from his Limehouse flat. In a desperate attempt to bond with his Dad, and deal with his grief over his mother, James started smoking meth too, in one of the more shocking scenes in the book.

Marilyn underwent chemotherapy, which James describes very well – both the physical changes and the emotional havoc it creates. She recovered enough at first for James to enjoy some precious family time with her and Ruth, but eventually the cancer returned, and she decided to refuse further chemotherapy and die at home.

In a key scene in the book, Richard was an hour and a half late for Marilyn’s birthday lunch at the Ivy restaurant. His addiction worsened his chronic lateness, so he was unable to be present for many family occasions. After Marilyn died, Ruth and James arranged for Richard to take James to the funeral, hoping this would force him to be on time.

Instead, Richard made them both late, which James describes as ‘a whole other genre and league of embarrassment than walking in on your father’s heavily occupied sex room’. James’ personal life continued to fall apart, when his long-term girlfriend broke up with him and he was sacked from his digital marketing job.

The turning point for James came when he found his new love, Jo, on Date, while for Richard it was when he was arrested in his flat, fast asleep wearing just a t-shirt and surrounded by drugs. It was ‘Britain’s largest ever haul of crystal meth’ according to the headlines and worth well over a million pounds.

It’s a gripping story and well-told – one criticism is that it’s hard to understand, even after reading it, quite how Richard’s coming out in mid-life segued into drug-dealing on such a massive scale. For someone who apparently spent decades in therapy, he doesn’t seem to have been very self-aware.

From reading James’ account, it doesn’t appear that he really understands it either, although he links his father’s descent into major drug addiction to his mother’s death – Richard lost his ‘rock’ when Marilyn died and indeed told his son she was the love of his life.

Richard was sentenced to eight years. He recovered slowly from his drug addiction and impressed prison authorities with his good behaviour, eventually being released early. He lost all his wealth (including his gold Rolls Royce and four flats in Limehouse) as part of the court proceedings and now lives on benefits in Poplar.

It’s an extraordinary tale. What’s also astonishing, and moving, is the good-humoured way it is told by his son (with the assistance of writer Warren Fitzgerald). The highs and lows of Richard’s journey are laid bare with excruciating candour and it is a testament to the strength of their family ties that everyone concerned is still speaking to each other.

Breaking Dad is available to buy from Waterstones. If you liked this review you may enjoy reading our interview with Richard Lubbock

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Tabitha Potts

Tabitha Potts is a writer living in East London, which inspires much of her work. She has had several short stories published in print and online and was most recently long-listed for the Royal Academy and Pin Drop Short Story Award. She loves reading books, looking at art and kickboxing. Read her work at: www.tabithapotts.com

Tabitha Potts has 29 posts and counting. See all posts by Tabitha Potts

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