I arrived at The Loved One because I was looking for a very short novel (I had two days to read it!), and I read a random article about how prolific Evelyn Waugh was. I was first introduced to him earlier this year with Brideshead Revisited, which is now one of my favorite novels. Then I read A Handful of Dust and liked it, too. I’m really surprised at how much he wrote and how much I like him. When I picked up Brideshead Revisited, I expected something serious and stuffy, but it’s really funny – and fun.
The same goes for The Loved One. I went to Starbucks yesterday and read all but the first fifteen pages in one sitting. It’s a really entertaining read.
Dennis Barlow is a really bad British poet transplanted to Hollywood to write a film script about Shelley. The other expatriates are unhappy with him because they think he’s tarnishing their reputations because once the film doesn’t pan out, he gets a job at a funeral home for pets called the Happier Hunting Ground. Barlow lives with another Brit named Sir Francis Hinsley, who promptly dies. Barlow has the task of dealing with the human funeral home, Whispering Glades, which is entirely excessive on every level. While he’s there, he meets the cosmetician (Hinsley hanged himself, so he has an interesting facial expression that must be dealt with), Aimée Thanatogenos, and begins dating her, regaling her with his terrible poetry. He soon discovers that he gets better results when he uses poems by Shakespeare or Tennyson or Poe because she’s too dumb to realize where they come from. He asks her to marry him just after she’s offered a promotion so she can support him: he says it’s perfectly acceptable in England. But! He has a rival in Whispering Glades, Mr. Joyboy, who also has his eye on Aimée. Ridiculous mischief ensues.
The Loved One is a very English novel, and it reads like one of the old shows that come on LPB on Saturday nights. It especially reminded me of Are You Being Served. It’s about English snootiness and American excess, and it’s hilarious. And a very quick, light read.
A Handful of Dust is a strange novel. It’s also really good, though not nearly as good as Waugh‘s earlier novel, Brideshead Revisited. It’s strange because of the ending. The penultimate chapter of the novel was originally a short story called “The Man Who Liked Dickens,” which had been published in a magazine. Another American magazine wanted to serialize the whole novel sans that short story, so Waugh wrote an alternative ending, which is wildly different. The short story part isn’t anything like the rest of the novel.
A Handful of Dust is a satire about English society. Brenda Last, Tony Last’s wife, has an affair with Mr. Beaver, a young London man who is basically a player and who has no money. Brenda falls in love with him and convinces her husband to rent a flat in London because she is supposedly studying economics at the university and can’t be bothered to go back to their family home in the country even though she has a son who is constantly asking about her. The kid is my favorite character in this novel and (whoa, spoiler!) Waugh kills him off before the halfway point. Brenda doesn’t really care and uses her son’s death as an excuse to divorce Tony. Then the story splits: Brenda continues her life in London, and Beaver eventually breaks up with her after the party season is over, and Tony goes to Brazil. Here’s where the endings split. In the actual novel, Tony goes with an anthropologist-of-sorts looking for a certain tribe around Brazil, ends up with a fever and hallucinates, and he and the anthropologist get lost. The anthropologist goes down a river in a canoe and gets killed in a waterfall. Tony, hallucinating, starts walking until he comes upon another tribe that’s run by an insane Englishman who keeps him captive and makes him read Dickens aloud every day. The End. Then there’s the alternate ending, in which Tony just went on a tour around the Americas, and when he returns to England, Brenda is there, and they (sort of) reconcile, except when Brenda asks Tony to get rid of the flat in London, he secretly keeps it for himself. The End.
The more I think about A Handful of Dust, the more I like it. It’s a good summerish sort of read, and it’s really interesting. The alternate ending situation is cool if for no other reason than its novelty. Waugh says it’s “included as a curiosity.” If I were one to sit on a beach and read, this would be the novel to take with me. It’s really light reading, but Waugh does a lot of interesting things that veer away from what you might expect of an English novel from the 1930s.
I enjoyed Brideshead Revisited sooooo much more than I thought I would. In fact, I think it’s one of my favorite books ever. Evelyn Waugh has a lot in common with Fitzgerald and Hemingway, though it was published twenty years after The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Brideshead Revisited is about wealthy English families between the World Wars. In college, Charles Ryder befriends Sebastian Flyte, and they run around together. Then Charles becomes involved in Sebastian’s family, and due to a flaw, of sorts, in Sebastian’s character, bad things begin to happen, and they part ways. But Charles can’t shake the Flyte family, and we hear about what happens to them through the rest of the novel while Sebastian remains on the periphery. It’s really depressing, though not in the family-loses-its-money-etc-etc way that you might expect. The characters are empty and remain so. No one is happy for long.
Though, again, it’s up there with my favorite novels. I spent a long time reading this one because I didn’t want to leave it. I liked the atmosphere. At the end, I found myself in a daze like I did with For Whom the Bell Tolls, when I felt like I was in the mountains of Spain during their Civil War for a few hours after.
Before this novel, I didn’t know much about Waugh, and I guess I still don’t. I most clearly associate him with my chronic confusion over his gender: I’ve embarrassed myself several times calling him “she”. In my defense, though, Evelyn is a pretty girly name. I also don’t understand why he’s not taught in universities. I have an English degree, and I feel like I should have at least heard of him while I was in college. At least for GRE purposes.
I’ll certainly be reading more Waugh in the near future. A Handful of Dust is probably next. It’s funny: sometimes I use a site called The Book Explorer for recommendations, and the list for Brideshead Revisited includes several of my favorite novels. One Hundred Years of Solitude, my Very Favorite Book, is at the top. I wish I’d been introduced to Waugh much earlier.