The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean


Purchased at

I think that it is fair to say that for as long as there has been an English novel, authors have chosen to place dysfunctional families at the centre of their work. From Austen through the Brontes, Eliot, Trollope, Waugh, Amis (father and son) and into the contemporary generation, it has been a very convenient device that provides lots of opportunity not just for developing varied characters but also placing them in a non-forgiving world open to critical observation.

In the early examples, it is true that those families tend to come from either the landed gentry (or those close to it) or the abject poor — although cautionary tales about those who futilely dream of rising above their station do represent a significant subset. Post World War II, however, the device acquired another thread — the middle-class dysfunctional family (usually located outside London) and the strains, both internal and external, that it faced became a popular model.

Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic is ample indication that the device is alive and well as the 21st century gets under way. The opening of her novel pays an oblique homage to the form:

People seem to tumble down to Hastings and not get up to go home again. It’s where they turn up, every Jack and Jill that never fell out with family, lost a job, had half an idea, got a bad habit. The town is a huddle of administrative towers and down-at-heel shops with their backs turned on the sea views.

Poor Hastings. The steam train once chuffed proudly into Warrior Square, where the statue of the Empress of India stood with her hooded eyes on the sea. The minor royals played here for a season, the gentry’s carriages drew up at the West Hill lift, the bourgeois bought villas in St Leonards. But now the Olympic-sized bathing pool is gone, the model town vandalized and the pier closed. Rock candy congeals in cellophane under blow heaters, and steel udders drop soft whip in souvenir shops. In the tuppenny arcade, on any given day of the week, there’ll be an old man feeling for change in the trays.

I’ll confess that Dean had me hooked with that opening: my knowledge of Hastings is confined to it being the WWII setting for the incredibly good television series Foyle’s War (which would be on my shortlist of “best television ever”, but I digress). Clearly, this is not Foyle’s Hastings. The fact that the television production could find an old town that is a definition of charm indicates that not all of handsome Hastings has slipped into distant memory — Dean wastes little time in showing that a lot of the surrounding area has. Here is her introduction to the area, seen through the eyes of Nick Goodyew, one of two middle-aged sons in the dysfunctional family whose troubled relations are the core of The Old Romantic:

This is not his town; this is his father’s town. This is not coming home. He did that when he moved back to the Weald, where two counties meet in hills and valleys, in a hinterland of hop bine and tractor track, whiteboard cottage and oast house, fruit field and orchard. That morning when he walked the dog, with woodsmoke forming halos above the dwellings, the countryside of his childhood seemed primitive to him — with no tarmac, no pylon, no telephone mast visible at all. Walking brings back memories. He likes to potter into the past and nip into the future, the way the dog moves, a waggy-tailed waverer on the scent of something good and aware too of other pleasures all about.

Nick, a family law solicitor (read “divorce”), is the elder son of the family, estranged for decades from his father Ken who is now 79. Those memories come to mind as he and his common-law wife, Astrid, are pulling up at Ken’s house. Ken, even grumpier now than in memory, has recently “re-opened” family relationships with a series of abusive phone calls — Nick’s younger brother, Dave, has set up a post-Christmas luncheon as an opening attempt to get the family back together.

‘God Almighty,’ Nick says to Astrid now, peeping at his father’s house, humourous and rueful, ‘I did mention to you that my father was a touch working class, didn’t I?’

‘Perchance’ is the name painted onto a cross section of a log varnished and tacked to the guttering over the front door of the bungalow. The front garden is concrete. The other houses have two-foot-high walls for decency’s sake but his has been demolished. Weeds have sprung up in the cracks of the forecourt. There’s a lean-to shelter outside the bungalow, with a corrugated yellow plastic roof and under it is a tall set of shelves stack with various plastic bottles, some with their heads cut off: cooking oil, window cleaner, plant food. There is a decrepit Christmas tree in a pot, and an old Queen Anne wing-backed chair bearing a large string bag of onions.

They sit there with the engine running. She turns the bracelets on her wrist. ‘Grim,’ she says lightly.

Let us allow Astrid to set the stage for the family reunion. The front door of the bungalow opens and Nick’s father and step-mother emerge: ‘She is red-faced and merry; he is pale and disdainful.’ ‘Oh, shit me, it’s the Krankies!’ says Astrid.

It would not be your traditional family roast lunch, she thinks, but then it hadn’t been your traditional Christmas call that got this particular ball rolling. She’d amused their friends with it all on Boxing Day in the pub.

‘I couldn’t believe it! I mean, call me old-fashioned but in our family we have turkey and stuffing on Christmas Day and a call from Auntie Jan in Portsmouth. So there we are, paper hats on, about to pour gravy and the phone goes, and Laura [Astrid’s pre-pubescent daughter] is like, who’s Nick on the phone to? And I’m like, It’s his dad, darling, he’s just wishing him a merry Christmas. And the next thing you hear from the conservatory is Nick screaming, And you’re nothing to me either, you old bastard!’

For Nick, the post-holiday roast lunch is a return to the surroundings of his childhood. The driving force of the novel, however, is a different kind of return: Ken’s retreat into a real-time version of childhood, brought on by a futile attempt to delay, or perhaps accept, his approaching end.

The conflicts developed in this narrative stream will be familiar to anyone who has read previous novels featuring dysfunctional families so I’ll ignore them here. There are not a lot of surprises but there is a wealth of wonderful set pieces. Ken, for example, has been filling in time by helping out at the local funeral home which provides the stage for a number. Father and sons take a motor trip to Wales, chasing Dad’s current wife who is eager to escape him. And there is a wonderful scene where the family thinks he has died — it turns out that it was just a very intense forty winks but it takes a while to discover that.

I had read good things about The Old Romantic but would have given it a pass were it not for the novel’s appearance at the top of Tony’s Book World’s 2011 best list (his review is here). Tony’s previous year-end lists have put me on to some genuine finds (he introduced me to Maile Meloy for which I will always be grateful) so that was recommendation enough. Tony describes The Old Romantic as a novel that has “a wicked joy with the meanest and sharpest dialogue of the year” — the quotes I have used illustrate Dean’s descriptive abilities, so dialogue lovers have much to look forward to in the book itself.

I didn’t rate the novel quite as highly as Tony did, but it was genuine entertainment from start to finish. And I’ll admit that the next time we load Foyle’s War into the DVD player (and we will be doing that soon, I assure you) I will be looking at Hastings and surroundings through an entirely different set of eyes.


22 Responses to “The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    This book made my best-of-year list too. I’ve read two by Dean: The Old Romantic and Becoming Strangers. Both are excellent.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: My sincere apologies for not remembering it was on your list as well. I’ll admit that I was a little surprised — The Old Romantic is a trifle sedate for your normal tastes. πŸ™‚ I suspect the ranking (for both of us) is a reflection of how well Dean constructs and portrays her stories — I’ll be keeping an eye out for Becoming Strangers.


    • Guy Savage Says:

      The way Dean created Ken made me see him as a very real person.

      Becoming Strangers is about a man who’s dying of cancer and he goes on holiday for his wife for one last time. The trip is paid for by his children. In some ways, he’s on auto pilot and has decided to accept his fate graciously. His wife however, can’t wait for him to die. It may sound gloomy but it isn’t. Loved it.


  3. Erika Says:

    After a conversation with 3 close friends over a long lunch we came to the conclusion that all family life is disfunctional by its very nature. The human animal should meet, mate and disperse!

    I thought I knew one perfect family when I was growing up–a church-goimg, picnicking mother, father and two round, smiling children. I learnt years afterwards that the parents were both hopelessly alcoholic and the children kept the home together by the skin of their teeth so so much for that…

    I read and enjoyed “The Old Romantic”.


  4. anokatony Says:

    There’s nothing like a dysfunctional family for comedy. What I iiked especially about ‘The Old Romantic’ is that first you laughed at the family, but as the novel progressed you saw that they weren’t all that different from anyone’s family. Great review.


  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tony: I agree that as I reader I moved from laughing at to laughing with to shrugging my shoulders and sheepishly thinking “that seems all too familiar”. As someone who is midway in age between Nick and his father, I found aspects of myself in both of them — that was almost scary at points.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Erika: From a literature point of view, some dysfunctional aspects are more interesting than others ( πŸ™‚ ), I think. It is to the author’s credit here that she found ones the required only minor exaggeration to make the book.


  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Quality of execution is everything isn’t it? I noitced this at Guy’s, and as you say the subject matter is pretty long standing. It’s not original in that sense. Without originality what’s left is execution (being a bit simplistic for a moment I admit).


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: A comment somewhere noted some similarities between Dean and Graham Swift. I agree with that, although she certainly has more humor to her than Swift does. I don’t mind that the novel is playing with a common set of circumstances since that’s what allows for the development of highly individual characters. And what is quite strong in this novel (and here the comparison with Swift certainly applies) is the development of a sense of place.


  9. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve had this on my wishlist for awhile, thanks to Tony, but Tom from A Common Reader also had a very perceptive review of it.

    I have read her earlier novel, This Human Season, which is set in Belfast in 1979, at the height of The Troubles, and focuses on two sides of the political divide in a way that is immensely nuanced and intelligent. It’s not exactly a family drama, but there are elements of that tradition in it.

    Speaking of dysfunctional middle-class families, I’ve just read a wonderful one by an Australian writer β€” The Children by Charlotte Wood β€” but because of those pesky and irritating territorial rights it will never garner an international audience, which is such a shame, because I rate it up there with the likes of Franzen and Eugenides and all those white American males who have this corner of the market snapped up. *steps down from soapbox*


  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: I should have mentioned Tom in my review as well — he not only lives in that part of the world, he also lived in Hastings itself for a while if I recall correctly.

    Thanks for the heads up on Charlotte Wood. Aussie books do eventually make it here, although sometimes it takes a few years. I may have to experiment and try ordering online direct from the Antipodes (that’s worked well with a number of DVDs for me).


    • Lee Monks Says:

      A fine review as ever, and Becoming Strangers was very impressive, I’d completely forgotten about that earlier novel. Certainly something to put on the list then, on the whole.


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: This is not a taxing novel, but it is still a rewarding one. Two weeks after finishing it, what comes to mind most often are some of the set pieces — Dean does them very, very well.


  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Lee: I had not thought about a Carol Shields comparison until you raised the issue — there are some, but not many. Dean’s characters (at least in this book) are stuck in a much more traditional world, experiencing changes that they don’t really understand. Shields’, on the other hand, tend to be involved more in shaping that world. And geography plays a part — in North America things are so vast that we wander a lot; for Dean’s characters a trip to Wales is a major excursion.

    There is some similarity of voice, since both do tend to the passive. Overall, though, I would say that Shields’ characters are dealing with an expanding world; Deans’ with one that is shrinking.


    • Lee Monks Says:

      I think I must’ve found something reminiscent at the time, be it dialogue or tone. But you run through a great comparison there that suggests a severe difference in scope and intent. And yes, I think your comment about the scale of excursions carries in general throughout the UK, certainly in England. Many folk here talk of ‘a trip into Manchester’. It is, of course, 7 miles away (you can see it quite clearly). I think this illustrates a wider point!


  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You are quite right in finding a common dialogue and tone — I’d extend that to include a comparable “helplessness” in the characters.

    And as an Albertan I will also admit to a “scale of excursions” bias. When I spent a summer in the UK as a Commonwealth Press Union fellow, I was amazed at how many senior journalists had never travelled more than a few miles from where they were born — yet felt quite qualified (and they were) to comment on world affairs. Dean does capture that claustrophobia very well (as does Graham Swift) — it is part of the overall charm of the novel.


    • leroyhunter Says:

      When I was a student, about 20 years ago, I went to visit a friend who was on a year’s Erasmus exchange in Italy – University of Pavia, near Milan. His (Irish) girlfriend had followed him over and was living in Milan itself, in an apartment with a few local girls. We visited quite a bit when we were in the city. Anyway, one of the girls living in the apartment admitted one day to never having been outside the borough of Milan we were then standing in (Lambrate I think it was called). I was flabbergasted. Surely she’d been into the centre of Milan, if just to see the Duomo etc? No, no, she’d never been: after all, the centre was full of immigrants, why would she want to visit? I can recall the distinctive sound of speechlessness to this day.


      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Having hit the UK in my previous comment….

        As horse racing fans, we used to frequently vacation in Arcadia, CA where Santa Anita racetrack is, about 15 miles from the centre of Los Angeles. I remember well a discovery from an early night at the very nice bar that became our local there: everyone was amazed that we had been to Hollywood for dinner that evening, since none of them had ever been there, although a few had always been intending to make the excursion.


        • Lee Monks Says:

          That’s incredible! Though in saying that my great-grandfather lived a mile from the Rhyl coast for 84 years and, when questioned at age 75 about how often he had frequented the beach, he said, ‘Oooh, well. No more ‘an four times, lad. When it’s on your doorstep there’s no novelty in it.’


  14. Lee Monks Says:

    I think xenophobia and general reluctance to advance beyond the safety of hermitude is rife amongst older generations, much less so with the younger ones. Always easier to expound about matters you know nothing about when your audience never ventures further than the next postcode. I think this is one of the underlying problems with fiction here: a lack of worldliness, too much self-regard. It sounds as though Dean is somewhat different in that respect. I believe Martin Amis – a writer I once loved, still do in many ways – is about to publish a savage lampooning of Little Englanders. Shame he had to leg it to NY to do it but still.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      This comment is probably influenced by my reading of Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet but I think there was some pull with the generation that came of age during the war (that would be my parents) to stick close to home (with its implied safety) once the war was over. My generation shows more of a split (although I didn’t get to Europe until I was 25); I’d agree that those who are coming of age now probably show an even greater tendency to wander and explore.


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