‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean

Old-romantic

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 292 pages; 2011.

Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic couldn’t be more different — in tone, subject and style — than the last novel of hers that I read, the brilliant but oh-so bleak This Human Season (2006), which was set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles and explored the political divide.

The Old Romantic is right at the other end of the spectrum: it’s a warm-hearted comedy set in on the south-east coast of England and is one of those lovely novels that you eat up in a day or two and feel all the better for having done so.

Grumpy old man

The story is essentially about the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of one family headed by the cantankerous Ken Goodyew — the “old romantic” of the title — who has become slightly obsessed by his own death. Ken is retired and lives in Hastings, a rundown coastal town in East Sussex, with his second wife, June.

When the book opens he has just been reunited with his eldest son, Nick, a solicitor, for the first time in 15 years at a hastily convened lunch with the extended family. You know things are not going to bode well for the newly established relationship when Ken announces that he has decided to leave all his worldly goods to his younger son, Dave — and that he wants Nick to draw up the will.

His marriage to June also looks to be on the rocks when he announces — just a few minutes later — that he also wants Nick to sort out a divorce. “I don’t want her lot, June’s family, to get their hands on a penny of it, see?” he says, while June sits there and does her best to ignore him.

Working class hero

From this fateful lunch, Dean spins a simple tale about Ken and the ways in which his actions, both past and present, impinge on his two wives and his two children. He is wilfully ignorant, marvellously grumpy and blatantly proud of his working class roots. I loved that all his dialogue is written phonetically, so he sounds like a London cab driver, and that almost everything that comes out of his mouth is appallingly rude or appallingly funny.

But even though Ken is the central character around which everything else tends to revolve, the book devotes equal attention to Nick and the ways in which he has spent his entire life trying to escape his humble beginnings — and his father’s overbearing shadow. That he changed his name from Gary, that he decided to study law, that he goes on holiday to exotic locations abroad, all speak of his desire to reinvent himself as a middle-class “somebody”.

His relationship with younger brother Dave — his polar opposite — is beautifully fleshed out, too, and you get a real sense of their sibling rivalries, tensions, contradictions — and love.

Other standout characters include Astrid, Nick’s beauty-parlour girlfriend obsessed with her looks and staying young, and Audrey, the business-like 40-something undertaker, whom Ken falls in love with — until she shows him the delicate and specialised art of embalming.

Comedy of manners

The Old Romantic is a wonderfully witty read that showcases Dean’s ability to write funny set pieces. But she’s also very good at developing drama, constructing believable dialogue and fleshing out back stories without losing that all-important narrative tension that keeps the reader turning the pages. The plot might be lean, but it’s the characters and the exploration of life, death and family which makes it rather special.

I loved this book and laughed out loud quite a lot, although I must admit that part of the enjoyment came from knowing that much of it was set in areas with which I am familiar. Indeed, I read this while on holiday in East Sussex, just a stone’s throw from Rye where much of the action takes place.

But even if you don’t know these places, there is much to enjoy in this rather fine comedy of manners.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean

  1. I also bought this book on the strength of This Human Season which I read as a result of your review. The fact that you have given it four stars is enough to push it further up my tbr pile as it is languishing in the middle there somewhere. It will be nice to read a comedy as I don’t tend to read too many of them.

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  2. No, havent read that but do remember when it first came out; I was slightly put off by chick-lit style cover. But I now know shes a terrific author and I should consign that little prejudice of mine to the bin. May have to see if my library has it in stock.

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  3. Hadnt realised you read This Human Season; I think I only know 2 people who have read it. Its such an amazing story and so thoroughly researched too, its a pity more readers dont give it a whirl.
    The Old Romantic has the appearance of being quite light, but its actually quite deep. It says a lot about relationships within families and how our parents influence us in all sorts of good and bad ways.

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  4. I agree completely that this is an excellent read. Sometimes the curmudgeon in me wants to engage with a similar fictional character — there was a bonus in this one as both Ken and Nick took turns fulfilling that role. 🙂

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  5. Hes such a great character, isnt he? Not sure if you know the BBC TV series One Foot in the Grave but he reminded me a little of the lead character, Victor Meldrew. Both have the same grumpy outlook on life.

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  6. No not chick lit. The main male character has cancer and he and his wife go on their ‘last holiday.’ very grim. But the wife behaves very badly–can’t wait for the husband to croak and he is trying to get by by being polite and kind. Full of acerbic wit.

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  7. This Human Season was a high impact read for me. I found it very confronting, so much so that I gave up on it, but then I just had to pick it up and keep reading it. An amazing book and one that has many images that have stayed with me over time.

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  8. Many years ago I live in Hastings where this novel is set and I enjoyed the very specific and accurate location details included in this novel. I thought this was a really excellenet book and I wrote a glowing review of it containing a reference to her interview on BBC Open Book.
    http://acommonreader.org/old-romantic-louise-dean-fig-tree/
    I briefly corresponded with Louise and she told me that writing books was barely worth the candle, so few sales resulted in terms of the effort put in. She is now devoting herself to selling high quality pottery online here http://www.dorisandco.co.uk/
    I still hope that she goes back to writing as she was doing so very well as an author.

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  9. Oh yes, I remember your review, Tom. Thanks for providing a link — hopefully others will click through & read your thoughts, which largely equate with mine. I thought this was a terrific book and I think Louise is a terrifically talented writer. Her comment about sales doesn’t surprise me — it seems that so many writers these days have “proper” fulltime jobs and the book writing is just a sideline. I hope she doesn’t give up entirely though… I’d certainly read her next book, no question!

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