From the Book Section: Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes

  I picked up this book at the grocery store of all places, and bought it on the sole basis of recognizing Julian Fellowes’ name as the writer/producer of Downton Abbey. This is his second novel, and according to the jacket copy the book combines “a masterful story of suspense and redemption with his unparalleled wit and insight into high society and human foibles.”  I can’t say I agree, unfortunately.

The story is one of a man in his early 50s and a friend he knew in his teens, Damian Baxter, with whom he had a falling out. He hasn’t spoken to him since the early ’70s, but gets an unexpected note one day.  Baxter is incredibly rich and successful, but he is dying. He has a letter from a woman that makes him believe he has a child in the world, which is suddenly very important to him because he never had one with his (now ex-) wife.  This could only have happened during the ’60s, when he was running around with the narrator and the upper classes in what was left of the Season (debutante balls and all that antiquated nonsense). Because the narrator (who I’m not certain has a name, now that I think back on it) knew the women and was part of the society, Baxter enlists him to find out which of the women has given him a child.  He wants to leave all his money to the child, but more importantly he wants to know that he has a legacy in this world.

The novel starts with a section describing his meeting up with Baxter again, a man he hates, and with apparently good reason. Many allusions are made to ‘that night in Portugal’ where they had a falling out and never saw each other again, but no explanations are offered. This must be the suspense referred to on the jacket. Damian gives the narrator a list of women he slept with that year that had children soon enough after to be contenders, a credit card to cover his expenses, and not much in the way of gratitude or politeness.

The rest of the book is divided into sections, one for each woman. Naturally, the narrator has to confront his own past as he politely and masterfully interrogates his old friends about some very personal issues.  He finds as he goes along that he didn’t really understand much about the people he went around with in his youth, and he says repeatedly how he would have liked them much better if he had truly known them back then. In the end, he does eventually solve the mystery, though not in an expected way.

There were some things I liked about it.  It was an interesting look inside upper class society in a period where it was more or less disintegrating.  The 1960s aren’t a time that people think about when they think about the Season or the trappings of upper class society. I certainly have never read or seen anything about it before.  And Fellowes would know what he’s talking about. He is about the same age as the narrator would have been, went to Cambridge just like the narrator, and I confess I had a hard time not seeing this as semi-autobiographical.  He is a peer, or part of the British nobility, and his title is the Barron Fellowes of West Stafford. He undoubtedly knows what he is talking about, and he does talk a lot about how the characteristics of the British upper-classes, from the 60s through today.  I feel I learned some about how they operate, though I can’t say it was worth the 400 pages it took to gain this knowledge.

What grated on me:

repetition, repetition, repetition.  This novel could have been about half as long, I think.  Maybe 2/3.  Fellowes has a  habit of giving his narrator these powerful insights into the people he is meeting, and he will explain clearly and easily what makes them tick, why they are unhappy or happy in their lot.  Then he will have another character explain the same thing in nearly the same words.  It is unnecessary, and it happens with almost every old friend he encounters.  I can’t imagine what he means by doing it.  Giving his narrator the ability to understand people would make sense, except a lot of what happens in the novel proves that he is a complete idiot. And if the people he is meeting are going to explain everything to him, why have him explain it to the reader just before? It just takes up space on the page.

Another ridiculous thing that happens again and again: He meets with these women and gets them to open up about the paternity of their children–and they all do, with very little hesitation.  This is believable, only if the narrator is particularly apt at dealing with people, which he doesn’t appear to be.  But putting aside this slightly unbelievable fact, there is something he continues to explain to the reader. When he acts really personal, slightly impertinent questions of people he hasn’t seen in 30 years, he says “It is hard to explain why, but this was not as intrusive a question at the time as it seems on the page.” Not that exact phrase every time, but every time an apology for what seems intrusive and explaining that it is not.  I would have found it much easier to deal with if he just explained that he was having one of those moments with these people, where the politeness and falsity of life wear off briefly, and you’re able to be truthful with one another.

lack of suspense.  The big mystery in the story is what exactly happened in Portugal that led to Damian and the narrator never speaking to each other again, but also to neither of them ever interacting with that crowd again. Only, by the end of the book, I really didn’t care.  And by the time the incident is recounted, it doesn’t seem so bad.  It’s anticlimactic.

the women.  All of the women portrayed in this book, with the exception of one, are treated as sort of ineffable, mysterious, and inherently good.  There are two that are represented as more or less Greek goddesses, whose only flaws involve not having a life worthy of their divinity.  The other women, even though the narrator doesn’t find them attractive, are saints trapped in terrible lives.  I do wonder, is it coincidence that the only truly unpleasant woman in the book is an American? Also, the men in the book are all terrible, dreadful, boring or abusive. Perhaps some people, perhaps even the writer, might think that this portrayal of men and women is flattering to women.  To me it implies something truly nefarious about the narrator.  And possibly the writer. People who idolize or deify women don’t see them as people, only as saints or deities.  That creeps me out.

the narrator. After spending 420 pages with this guy, I can’t say I know much about him at all.  He was a complete moron when he was living out most of the events he is now reliving, that much can be said for sure.  He had no idea what was going on with his supposed friends, and seems to have been completely unaware of their true selves. He absolutely loves one of the girls from his youth, and always has. But see above on why I find it creepy. He is described, albeit by someone who dislikes him, as a hanger-on, a grubbing non-entity, and I’m sorry to say the more I read the more I agreed.  And Julian Fellowes’ face plastered on the back jacket made me deeply disturbed.  This face is pretty much the face of a non-entity.  Maybe because it so so colorless and round.

At any rate, disliking the narrator so intently meant that I could not very well appreciate the book.  So I give it a big thumbs down.

I do want to say though that I was reminded quite strongly of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.  There’s the same recollection of the 1960s, the same falling out between friends and death as a way to bring them back together as old men, even the same paternity mystery.  There is also the repeated and almost identical insistence that despite the action taking place in the 1960s, it wasn’t a wild and crazy time in the UK.  I think both books say the same thing, that for most of the people living, what is popularly thought of as the ’60s didn’t happen to most of them until well into the ’70s.

The books are similar, but I can’t express well enough how much better the Barnes’ version of a similar story is.  I loved that book, whereas this one gives me an unpleasant creepy crawly feeling.

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