Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Past Imperfect

So, I'm sick, which is extraordinarily terrible timing as it's finals week and I missed my German final because of it, but it does mean that I got to read most of Past Imperfect this weekend, and managed to finish it.

My impressions of the book are somewhat muddled. It's odd reading a book by someone who I associate with a completely different world. The author, Julian Fellowes, is an actor, and for some reason it changes my experience of the book that I know what its author looks like, not just from the photo in the back of the book but in movement.

The premise of the book is that its narrator gets a letter from a man called Damian Baxter, whom he was friends with forty years ago, during the London Season of 1968, and now hates. Damian is now dying, and wants the narrator to undertake a search for Damian's illegitimate child (now grown up), who might belong to any one of five women they both knew during that year. The incident at a dinner party in Portugal which caused the animosity between these characters is not revealed until very near the end of the book, so you're always wondering vaguely what it was.

There's nothing too unusual about the plot, but the book is written in a very odd style. I'm not sure I've ever quite read anything like it. For one thing, the narrator is never given a name, which always made me wonder how much he was Julian Fellowes. I couldn't help picturing them as one and the same in terms of appearance, and you just know if they made a movie that's who would play him. The book has a definite air of memoir, which adds to this comparison. It also takes place in, almost, three different times. There is the present in which the story is being written down, the present in which the search for the child is happening, and the background to this search, which happened forty years previously. There's a slightly excessive amount of nostalgia for the past, and also an excessive amount of marveling that once upon a time they really went through all these rituals of the Season, and marveling over the past in general. Some phrases are overused in the book, especially variants of "as we know" which usually go on to tell things I don't know, being both American and much too young. It's a superfluous phrase anyway, whenever it's used, with things like "as we know, they always served salmon mousse at these dinners."

I never managed to care very much what had happened in Portugal to make Damian and the narrator hate each other. Curiously, it didn't even occur to me until more than halfway through the book to wonder which woman was the mother of Damian's child. The book never quite managed to be suspenseful, and there was no sense of urgency about the search, even though it was urgent. And when we did hear the story of Portugal, it both lived up to expectations and failed them.

Over all, I feel like in many ways the book did not achieve what it was attempting. It's title can be applied to it purely as relates to the writing--it's definitely imperfect. I think the author could use some more practice writing novels, frankly; there are a lot of things wrong with the plotting and the writing, a lot of misplaced commas--it could have used a better editor. However, if it did not achieve its intended effect, it did achieve something else. The mood and style of the book is extremely unusual and very interesting, and it does give a pretty good picture of the last vestiges of the London Season. It was worth reading, and though I considered giving up on it a couple of times, it really did hold my attention.

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