Last year, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Louise Dean’s novel, Becoming Strangers, and then this year I was fortunate indeed to get my hands on a review copy of Dean’s latest, The Old Romantic. It’s reviewed at Mostly Fiction, so I won’t repeat myself too much here, but here’s a brief outline:
The novel begins with a reunion-from-hell for the long-estranged Goodyew family. Barrister Nick has spent years avoiding his parents, and part of that avoidance is manifested in his attempts to reinvent himself. He used to be called Gary, and when he dropped the name and attended university, he left his working class roots behind. Or so he thought.
The reunion takes place at Xmas with Nick and his girlfriend, upwardly mobile spa owner Astrid, picking up Nick’s grumpy old dad, Ken and his second wife, June for Xmas dinner at the home of Nick’s younger brother Dave. Within just a couple of pages, we see a tangled mess of relationships and the sort of nasty remarks that are only ever directed towards family members. The rest of the novel follows the relationships between the Goodyew family as various events occur.
If you’ve ever wondered why you bother with your relatives, then chances are you will enjoy the book. It’s lively and very, very bitterly funny in its exploration of family politics. Nick’s dad Ken is arguably the star of the show, and as the book continues there are many hilarious scenes which made me laugh out loud. One of the best scenes takes place at a swanky restaurant at dinner attended by Astrid’s parents, the snobbish Linda and Malcolm, Nick and Astrid, and Nick’s dad Ken. This is an important meal, Ken is the unexpected guest, and Astrid’s parents receive no advance warning. Ken (who reminds me a great deal of Albert Steptoe) dominates:
Ken slapped the closed menu down onto the table. ‘All too dear,’ he said, tight-lipped and final.
Nick’s professional experience in dealing with difficult people in challenging circumstances persuaded him to coax the old boy.
‘It’s actually very reasonable, Dad. A nice, elegant menu, not too pretentious. If you tot it up, it works out quite a good deal if each of us takes the prix fixe.’
But he wasn’t speaking Ken’s language. ‘Too dear.’ Ken reiterated.
‘There’s liver and bacon, Dad, on at fifteen. You like liver and bacon, don’t you? That’s right up your street.’
‘Do me a favour! Fifteen nicker for a bit of offal. They sin you coming, sunshine.’ Ken made a bid of the other couple’s opinion. ‘What d’you think, Malcolm? Dear, innit?’
Nick leant back in his chair, putting his mouth close to his father’s ear, to escape the audible range of their table.
‘Just fucking order something, all right?’
Ken closed his eyes.
A bit later, Ken makes his menu choice:
Ken cleared his throat. ‘I’ll have the tamada soup.’
‘The…what’s that? I can’t see it on the menu….’ said Linda, with murderous eloquence.
‘There’s always a tamada soup on the menu.’
Malcolm tried to look wry and debonair, both old-fashioned and modern, with one side of his face doing the 1950s and the other lost in space.
‘Tomato soup.’ Astrid came to the rescue. ‘As in Heinz.’
‘That’s the job,’ said Ken.
‘He doesn’t get out much,’ said Nick to the waitress.
‘And tap water, please,’ said Ken. ‘From the tap, please, miss. Yes. Thank you. And I’ll have some bread with my soup, ta. I don’t drink much, do you Linda? Don’t feel the need.’
So two winners in a row from Dean.