Oct 31, 2012

Continental Book Club: Past Imperfect

As entertaining as leafing through an issue of Tatler (if that's your thing), but not a must-read.

Since I have to box up most of my books for storage and return everything outstanding to the library, I'm taking these next 1.5 weeks as an opportunity to read a stack of books I've been meaning to get around to but never did.

First up - now returned to the library - is the novel Past Imperfect.

Since it was written by Julian Fellowes, the man behind of Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, I went in with a bit of a bias. While I thought Gosford Park was pretty entertaining both at first viewing and rewatching, Downton Abbey failed to live up to the hype. Much too soapy, without the least hint of satire, and so much saying instead of showing...I like Maggie Smith's character, but the rest was so dull that I didn't bother with the subsequent seasons.

So I was pleasantly surprised that Past Imperfect was an amusing and relatively quick read (despite being about 500 pages long). I like "social climbing outsider swept into a world of riches until it all falls apart horribly" stories - The Great Gatsby, A Secret History, Brideshead Revisited are among my all-time favorites and all revolve around that trope. The story is told not by the outsider himself, but by the person who introduces him to the club, i.e. the debutante scene of late 1950s London. The MacGuffin is that in the present day, the interloper - long estranged from everyone and now on his deathbed - contacts the narrator (now a semi-successful novelist), to find his illegitimate child. He knows the mother is one of the debutantes whose set he joined, so the narrator visits them to investigate.

Thus the premise, but the novel's real focus is on drawing a picture of the UK's upper classes in the 1960s. I don't think it's as satirical as it thinks it is, nor is it the sort of novel that gives new insights into the depths of the human condition (though it did give a great sense of the physicality of SW London at the time), and there is some suspension of disbelief required - but it was definitely fun to read. Kudos to Fellowes for making the fall-out between the interloper and his society friends - featured in the last chapters of the novel - almost as dramatic as you'd hope after the hints and build-up throughout.

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