Louise Dean's The Old Romantic couldn't be more different — in tone, subject and style — than the last novel of hers that I read, the brilliant but oh-so bleak This Human Season (2006), which was set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles and explored the political divide.
The Old Romantic is right at the other end of the spectrum: it's a warm-hearted comedy set in on the south-east coast of England and is one of those lovely novels that you eat up in a day or two and feel all the better for having done so.
Grumpy old man
The story is essentially about the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of one family headed by the cantankerous Ken Goodyew — the "old romantic" of the title — who has become slightly obsessed by his own death. Ken is retired and lives in Hastings, a rundown coastal town in East Sussex, with his second wife, June.
When the book opens he has just been reunited with his eldest son, Nick, a solicitor, for the first time in 15 years at a hastily convened lunch with the extended family. You know things are not going to bode well for the newly established relationship when Ken announces that he has decided to leave all his worldly goods to his younger son, Dave — and that he wants Nick to draw up the will.
His marriage to June also looks to be on the rocks when he announces — just a few minutes later — that he also wants Nick to sort out a divorce. "I don't want her lot, June's family, to get their hands on a penny of it, see?" he says, while June sits there and does her best to ignore him.
Working class hero
From this fateful lunch, Dean spins a simple tale about Ken and the ways in which his actions, both past and present, impinge on his two wives and his two children. He is wilfully ignorant, marvellously grumpy and blatantly proud of his working class roots. I loved that all his dialogue is written phonetically, so he sounds like a London cab driver, and that almost everything that comes out of his mouth is appallingly rude or appallingly funny.
But even though Ken is the central character around which everything else tends to revolve, the book devotes equal attention to Nick and the ways in which he has spent his entire life trying to escape his humble beginnings — and his father's overbearing shadow. That he changed his name from Gary, that he decided to study law, that he goes on holiday to exotic locations abroad, all speak of his desire to reinvent himself as a middle-class "somebody".
His relationship with younger brother Dave — his polar opposite — is beautifully fleshed out, too, and you get a real sense of their sibling rivalries, tensions, contradictions — and love.
Other standout characters include Astrid, Nick's beauty-parlour girlfriend obsessed with her looks and staying young, and Audrey, the business-like 40-something undertaker, whom Ken falls in love with — until she shows him the delicate and specialised art of embalming.
Comedy of manners
The Old Romantic is a wonderfully witty read that showcases Dean's ability to write funny set pieces. But she's also very good at developing drama, constructing believable dialogue and fleshing out back stories without losing that all-important narrative tension that keeps the reader turning the pages. The plot might be lean, but it's the characters and the exploration of life, death and family which makes it rather special.
I loved this book and laughed out loud quite a lot, although I must admit that part of the enjoyment came from knowing that much of it was set in areas with which I am familiar. Indeed, I read this while on holiday in East Sussex, just a stone's throw from Rye where much of the action takes place.
But even if you don't know these places, there is much to enjoy in this rather fine comedy of manners.