My first Louis Begley book was About Schmidt and I came to it via the film. Can’t say I liked the film much but there was something about the main character that drove me to check out the source material. Since then, I’ve read a few other novels by the same author, so when I saw The New Life of Hugo Gardner, I knew I had to read it.
Hugo Gardner is 84, he’s still healthy–although there are some nagging questions about his PSA. He’s had a phenomenal career as a journalist and author, he’s wealthy, he has two children, Barbara and Rod and he’s happily married to Valerie. Wait … he thought he was happily married, so Hugo is stunned one day to get a phone call from Valerie’s new lawyer who tells Hugo that Valerie, a successful food writer who has her own cooking show, wants a divorce. Valerie, at “a very shapely 61” has left Hugo for a younger man. Oh the humiliation. Hugo wants to confirm his wife’s decision:
Don’t you know that living with you is like living with a corpse? Not even a zombie. An unburied corpse! I can’t stand you, I haven’t been able to stand you for years! You don’t know that, imbecile!
Hugo lawyers up, and after the first shock passes, the divorce moves quickly and as painlessly as possible.
This life-changing event causes Hugo to reevaluate himself as a husband and a father, and all this takes him back to revisit his past in the form of the girlfriend he dumped when he met Valerie.
On one level, it’s hard as a reader to relate to Hugo–he’s part of the 1%, with a great New York apartment and a house in Bridgehampton. Trips to Paris, eating at the finest restaurants and hiring staff to clean etc all come easy to Hugo. But scrape that aside and this is an engaging tale of a man who suddenly finds himself alone, wondering if he made the right choices, troubled by his children, and facing his own mortality. Hugo may be 84, but there’s still a lot of living to be done, and his zest for life is admirable. There’s some marvellous stuff between Hugo and his daughter, Barbara. Hugo continually shells out money for his grandchildren and while he wonders what is going on between Barbara and her dermatologist husband, he never questions or refuses her requests for money. For him, it’s there no moral decision involved
Barbara’s calls, the ones timed for when I would have finished breakfast but hadn’t yet gone out, were often of the ‘I’ve got something I’d sort of like to ask you’ variety. Duly translated they meant: I want some money. For the kids’ piano and dance lessons, summer camp fees, and the like. Why her dermatologist husband, practicing in Wellesley, which is, to my knowledge, still a wealthy suburb, can’t afford this stuff, I don’t know. The truth is that I don’t much care. When I am invited, for instance, to fund my elder granddaughter Trudy’s first-year tuition at a private day school, a sum for which I could have bought myself a Mercedes two-seater, I reply, but of course. Why should I say no? I have no desire to become the owner of that two-seater and love unconditionally my daughter and granddaughters.
The story is set against the upcoming presidential nomination, and Hugo isn’t shy about expressing his political opinions. Hugo is in many ways a disconnected character. His divorce comes as a shock, his daughter’s resentments are unexpected tirades (later explained) and he’s not that close with his son. Later when Hugo reconnects (and reignites sexually) with an old flame in Paris, he’s also far behind the 8 ball. Hugo, who leads an active life of the mind, is self-absorbed and so he’s always taken off guard in his personal relationships. That will never change. But ultimately, he’s a character who travels lightly–bears no grudges, rolls with the punches, and deals with life’s humiliations with equanimity and gentle self-deprecating humour.