Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Old Romantic

~sigh~ Comic novels.  I don’t know why but fictional humor doesn’t do it for me. What do you think? For me having someone describe a novel as funny, amusing or humorous is the kiss of death. It positively guarantees that I will never read that book.  Why??? I like to laugh. I find tons of things funny, really I do! Just not the written word apparently.

So here’s The Old Romantic by Louise Dean. The New York Times said that it has ‘great comic touches’ and Publisher’s Weekly described it as “grimly hilarious” and I liked it. Did I laugh? No. Was I meant to? No, I don’t think so. Was I amused? No. There are numerous humorous situations but in the hands of this gifted writer they are mixed with a little too much realism, a little too much truth to be comic. They are more emotionally squirm worthy than laugh out loud.

The Old Romantic is set in England but it is the universal story of the successful adult snob who is ashamed of his parents. We all know that story. It usually ends with ungrateful brat having a crisis or epiphany or meeting a talking horse with the wisdom of the ages at his hoofs and realizing the value of Mom and Dad. Cue the happy ending. In Louise Dean’s version of this classic tale family feeling and acceptance are not achieved so easily or with such Hallmark results—giving the reader the happy ending instead of the characters.

As successful as eldest son, Nick has been out in the world, he’s been just that bad at relationships. As a teenager he squealed to Mom about Dad Ken’s affair and thereby ended his parents’ marriage.  After the divorce Nick lived with odd, angry Mom, Pearl, while peacemaking younger brother Dave felt compelled to live with Dad. Twenty years and more bad water under the bridge later Dave manages to bring Nick home for a reunion with Ken.

Ken, now 80, and on his second divorce, has decided that he’s dying. He wants Nick to help him with his divorce from current wife, June and with writing his will not that Ken is leaving Nick anything. Nick, who has achieved poshness above his station as a lawyer allows himself to be guilted into helping his father. Ken is self involved, anger spewing, maudlin and has left a trail of hurt behind him.

As we get to know Nick and the rest of the family we have to question Nick’s version of the past. Is Ken really the epitome of ignorance, bad taste and blaming? How much of Nick’s upbringing has he been able to jettison and how much has he carried around with him shaping his relationships?  How far beneath the fine clothes does Nick’s refinement run? What is at the heart of his relationship with the attractive Astrid? Is Nick only a slightly more socially acceptable version of Ken?
The Old Romantic isn’t the kind of novel that you read to find out what will happen next so much as what the characters will say next.  Louise Dean constantly shifts your sympathies from character to character in The Old Romantic. Ken, Nick, Pearl, Dave, the poor funeral director- everyone gets a turn being the victim. Instead of plot this novel is stuffed with intricate relationships, the kind of commonplace moments that reveal our own prejudices and foibles and some extra snappy dialog.

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