2.20.2012

Review: The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean

Definitely dry and somewhat maudlin, Louise Dean's The Old Romantic is the tale of an elderly man's aspirations to reunite the bits and pieces of his family before he dies, and also a kind of study of the way in which his estranged eldest son morphs into the bitterly funny father.

There's a bit of dialect to wade through, and there are British idioms that can sometimes make it a little unintelligible (for Americans), but the language is realistic and well-paced, spoken by brilliantly rendered characters. Nick, whose perspective on this divided family is the first we encounter, has perhaps the largest evolution over the course of the novel, but also has the shortest arc. Once he reunites with his father (albeit briefly in the novel's early days) it's as if a switch has been flicked and he begins to unconsciously mimic his father whom he supposedly abhors.

His father Ken has a broader arc, a subtler curve and a more appreciated outcome. His romantic feelings seem to swing wildly and even with a hint of something bigger, maybe a hint of Alzheimers, but in the next moment he's clear as a bell. His wife June is perhaps the one throwaway character who, once she's off the scene, you don't regret it. Especially once ex-wife (and mother of his children) Pearl comes back into their lives. And the side-story of Ken's feelings for Audrey Bury (a caretaker, of all things for someone called Bury to do) is necessary for the forwarding of the plot (Ken's considering of his mortality, his preoccupation with death, getting his grandson into trouble for looking up poisons, etc.) but its summation seems somewhat forced.

Actually, many of the relationships seem a bit forced, but that's a criticism of the characters, not on the author. These living, breathing people are constantly trying to force themselves into a particular shape, a particular kind of relationship...and the only one that feels completely organic is the one that fell apart twenty years ago. There's kind of a beautiful focus on youth and childhood seen in the aside about Marina and Dave's running together in the strawberry fields, in Ken's embracing of the photo of his mother, and also in the creepy dolls that, as one character regards, will never grow up. It's a lesson about slowing down - you're only a kid for so long and, once your'e not anymore, you'll spend your whole lives trying to get that time back again.

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