I often complain about books where I dislike all the characters. Sometimes I can't even finish them. When I first met the characters in The Old Romantic, I hated them all, but I pushed on and I am very glad I did. Louise Dean gives us a family whose members are, at first impression, prickly, ill-mannered, self-absorbed, shallow, bitter, hostile and rude, and she makes us love them. What skill! And it's a lot of fun to read, once you get going.
Ken, the patriarch and head curmudgeon of this family, has decided that his demise is near and desires to reconcile with his estranged children and ex-wife before his death. His first attempts are not terribly auspicious; after 20 years of no contact he takes to calling his son Nick and screaming abuse at him over the telephone. Nick has carved out an upscale life as a solicitor and wants nothing to do with his brutish working-class father, but Nick's brother Dave (the people-pleasing younger sibling) manages to arrange a luncheon that brings everyone together and starts the reunion ball rolling.
We soon discover that underneath his crotchety exterior Ken is just a lonely old man who needs to know that his life was not a failure. He is, of course, the old romantic of the title. His sweetness shines through, despite his best efforts to prevent that. Over time Dave, Nick and their mother eventually reconnect, let down their guard, and make their peace with Ken and with one another. Secondary characters such as Nick's girlfriend Astrid and Dave's teenage children are as well-defined as the main characters. Dean can generate a reader's distaste or sympathy with a few choice words.
This is a very English book, saturated with dark sardonic English humor. Class differences are a recurring theme. Much of the family's initial stress stemmed from Nick's ascent to Oxford, Dave's failure to follow him, and Ken's disgust with Nick's aspirations. I am certain I missed some of the more subtle class allusions, and readers who aren't familiar with contemporary British culture might miss more. On the other hand, the theme of an old man facing death is pretty universal, no?
Becky Holmes blogs about books at A Book A Week.