On Wednesday night, we had another fun and lively book club discussion, this time about Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey.
The book follows a quest to find the lovechild of a very rich and dying man who had flings with several women around the same time 40 years ago. The search takes us back and forth through time as we are introduced to the world of the 1960s London set who are clinging onto their debutante traditions and aristocratic social standing.
The inevitable initial question – did you like the book? – gave rise to our first difference of opinion as while the majority of those present enjoyed it, Zoe W decidedly did not. Her main reasons were linked to the fact that none of the characters were particularly likeable, in her opinion. She also admitted to being swayed by the fact that she was less than impressed with Julian Fellowes behaviour at the Baftas – we later returned to this notion of being swayed in this way by remarking that it is similar to disliking a film because it stars an actor you don’t like, despite the fact that the film might be the best written and directed film ever! Coming back to the characters of the novel, it was acknowledged even by those who liked the book that Zoe was right in saying that there were few likeable characters, a notable exception being Dagmar. For some, though, these flawed characters did not make the book odious but instead added colour.
Roisin was interested in the idea of a writer writing about a writer (the narrator is a writer who was always on the scene during the 1960s escapades without ever being central to them). At times, it seemed to that Fellowes was being self-referential but it also made the story more engaging since the writer-narrator was a good story-teller. For me, it allowed the narration to be at a higher literary level since it was reasonable that the very clear voice of the narrator should be eloquent.
This brings us on to another interesting point: the narrator is never named in the book. This is something some of us noticed at different points while others barely realised (and Zoë S thought he was called John!). Was this symbolic of his insignificance in the story and therefore lives of the other characters? Was it indicative of his own lack of self-confidence?
We talked a bit about a question which was included in the discussion points found at the back of the book: ‘was it a kinder world years ago’. While Zoë S pointed out that they were restricted by the rules of the day much more than nowadays, I noted that the narrator seemed to rail against the encroaching of government against our civil liberties in the guise of health and safety (although it is hard to be sympathetic as he moans about the tightening of rules regarding such things as drink driving). It is also hard to answer this question since the novel itself is a window into a very small section of society and the way of life for these people may have become harder, but it is all rather relative.
As for the ending, there seemed to be a consensus that the awful night in Portugal which is alluding to throughout the book, was an (not unexpected) anti-climax with Zoë S noting that this petty event which was so devastating in the mind of the narrator mirrors the petty and superficial nature of the whole deb world. Amy liked that unlike some novels, there was resolution at the end insomuch as you found out what happened to each character. In fact, it was really just the narrator who was left seeming like he was stuck; he hadn’t moved on geographically or emotionally, still pining for his unrequited love, Serena.
Finally, those that enjoyed the book felt that Fellowes’s gift was his attention to detail and crystal-clear descriptions which enabled the reader to vividly visualise the characters and scenes in a way which other writers can sometimes fail to do.
So there you have it – a glimpse into our discussion!
Our next book was also decided at the meeting using the old ‘pick out of a hat’ method: One Day by David Nicholls. Our next book club meetup will be in January so you have plenty of time to read and join in our next book club chat!