THE OLD ROMANTIC by Louise Dean
“You‚Äôre lucky your parents are normal.”
Review by Guy Savage ¬†(MAR 5, 2011)
If, as Tolstoy posits, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, then the Goodyews would certainly rank highly in the toxic department. When British author Louise Dean‚Äôs fourth novel, The Old Romantic begins, it‚Äôs almost too easy to sympathize with Nick, a bachelor barrister who‚Äôs persuaded to visit his nasty old dad after years of estrangement. As Dean‚Äôs comic novel of manner unfolds, however, the web of familial relationships become increasingly more complicated, and ultimately Dean appears to take a tolerant approach to family foibles.
Forty-year old Nick, who was once known as Gary, has worked hard to reinvent himself. He‚Äôs dropped his working class accent as neatly as he dropped his family. His parents, Ken and Pearl divorced back in 1987, and Nick has managed to stay away from both of them for 15 years. Seventy-eight-year-old Ken is now remarried to a brave, almost mindlessly cheerful woman with ‚Äúromantic aspirations‚ÄĚ named June, and when the novel begins, Nick‚Äôs brother, Dave has persuaded Nick to pick up Ken and June and join Dave‚Äôs family for Christmas dinner. Nick doesn‚Äôt brave the journey alone, and he takes along his girlfriend, Astrid, a spa owner, for moral support. Here‚Äôs Astrid and Nick as they arrive at Ken‚Äôs house:
‚Äú ‚ÄėPerchance‚Äô is the name painted onto a cross section of a log, varnished and tacked to the guttering over the front door of the bungalow. The front garden is concrete. The other houses have two-foot high walls for decency‚Äôs sake but his has been demolished. Weeds have sprung up in the cracks of the forecourt. There‚Äôs a lean-to shelter outside the bungalow, with a corrugated yellow plastic roof and under it is a tall set of shelves stacked with various plastic bottles, some with their heads cut off: cooking oil, window cleaner, plant food. There is a decrepit Christmas tree in a pot, and an old Queen Anne wing-backed chair bearing a large bag of onions.
They sit there with the engine running. She turns the bracelets on her wrist. ‚ÄėGrim,‚Äô she says lightly.‚ÄĚ
While Astrid‚Äôs first impression of Nick‚Äôs father‚Äôs neglected home is “grim,” this is nothing compared to the debacle that erupts over Christmas dinner at Dave‚Äôs home. Amidst a scene of almost insufferable, interminable goading, Ken brings up the subject of his will. He‚Äôs leaving everything to younger son Dave, and if that‚Äôs not a big enough bombshell, he also tells Nick: ‚ÄúI want you to do me a divorce.‚ÄĚ
Nick leaves the dinner abruptly and no amount of diplomacy and polite behaviour can smooth over the family-holiday-from-hell. While it may seem that the nastiness of the interrupted Christmas dinner will seal off any further contact between Nick and his father, in reality, this event is just the beginning. When June appears to run off with Ken‚Äôs nest egg, Nick is once more roped back into family affairs.
Nick‚Äôs life is complicated by a holiday he takes abroad with Astrid, and Ken‚Äôs life is complicated by his crush on local undertaker, Audrey. When Ken starts volunteering at the funeral home, Audrey thinks he‚Äôs a ‚Äúgroupie.‚ÄĚ Ken‚Äôs interest in the funeral home is two-fold: he admires Audrey and he also harbors a death obsession. While picking up a body at a hospital, Ken runs into his ex-wife, Pearl–a tough, fiercely independent old bird who lives alone at a gamekeeper‚Äôs cottage.
In The Old Romantic, Dean appears to argue that while we may not like our families, and we may not like the roles we have within that family network, it is truly impossible to reinvent ourselves within that group. “Nick” is still Gary to his dad, and Dave is still the family diplomat, eager to smooth over nastiness and pretend everyone is happy. Astrid, who‚Äôs a bit of a snob, is shocked when she meets Nick‚Äôs family and sees what sort of background he comes from. She even catches his well-honed accent slipping and the new view of Nick as Ken‚Äôs son causes a crisis of sorts.
This is a very funny novel, and it‚Äôs almost impossible to select just one scene from so many deliciously wicked moments. One of my favourite scenes is when Nick, Dave and Ken form a posse to hunt down the runaway June. During the trip, the men all revert to increasingly clannish behaviour as they seek to right a wrong done to the family. Another brilliant scene takes place when a disgruntled Ken is taken to a posh restaurant, and he questions items on the menu complaining about the prices, making sure he spoils the experience for everyone. While his behaviour may seem nasty, it‚Äôs also extremely funny to put Ken at the same table with people who worry about every item of clothing and whether or not the rest of the clientele are up to snuff. Here‚Äôs Ken arriving at the restaurant:
‚ÄúHe came in like a desperate man, clasping the door handle and shoving the structure back into its frame, making quite a noise. It was as if he‚Äôd been wandering the souks of Northern Africa for many months, shoeless, before finding the British Embassy. It was as if he came with news of the enemy at the city gates. All eyes were upon him.
‚ÄėAll right,‚Äô he said.
He resisted the removal of his mac by the waitress.‚ÄĚ
Last year I read Louise Dean‚Äôs novel Becoming Strangers. It‚Äôs the story a man with terminal cancer who goes on a final holiday with his appalling wife. She can no longer hide the fact that she‚Äôs impatient for him to die, and he‚Äôs just trying to get through the last few months with politeness as a guide. Becoming Strangers was one of the best books I read in 2010, and in spite of its subject matter, it was not grim (there‚Äôs that word again).
The Old Romantic is a very British novel, and it‚Äôs full of class markers. Some of the references may confuse the non-British reader, but if you‚Äôre ok with that, then The Old Romantic is a delightfully funny, generous look at family politics.
|AMAZON READER RATING:||from 3 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Riverhead Hardcover; Reprint edition (February 17, 2011)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Wikipedia page on Louise Dean|
|EXTRAS:||Reading Guide and Excerpt|
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||Read our review of:|
- Becoming Strangers (January 2006) ¬†– Betty Trask Award
- This Human Season (February 2007)
- The Idea of Love (2008; July 2009 in US)
- The Old Romantic (2010; Feb 2011 in US)