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Sunday, April 25, 2010

'The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers' by Paul TORDAY

Received from the publisher

From the BLURB:

Hector Chetwode-Talbot, Eck to his friends, has left the army after a rather nasty moment in Colombia. From a privileged background, he is slightly at a loss as to what to do next, when he is approached by an old army pal, Bilbo Mountwilliam. Bilbo runs an investment fund company and persuades Eck to join the company. It is on a golfing trip to France with his friend Henry Newark that Eck first meets Charlie Summers, a fly-by-night entrepreneur who is hiding out in France after a 'misunderstanding with Her Majesty's Customs and Revenue.' Charlie's latest scheme is to import Japanese dog food into the UK. Henry casually mentions that Charlie should 'look us up' if he is ever in Gloucestershire. But not only does Charlie Summers look Henry up, he arrives with his suitcase, intent on staying with the Newarks and relaunching his dog food business in their area. But with the financial crash looming, Eck begins to ask himself if they are so very different...

Paul Torday hit the literary scene in 2006 with his debut novel ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’. ‘The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers’ is Torday’s fourth novel.

The novel’s protagonist is not, in fact, Charlie Summers, but one Hector-Chetwode-Talbot, ‘Eck’ to his friends. Eck has just left the army, and now drifts around London where he reacquaints with an old school friend, who runs a hedge fund. It’s the 2007 financial boom, and Eck soon finds himself flying high; wining, dining and golfing with investors as the city enjoys unparalleled wealth.
From there the book follows Eck and his relationship with various characters, one of whom is Charlie Summers. Through Eck’s narration, we are witness to Charlie’s numerous bumbling financial mishaps and his unintentional catastrophizing.

As the recession looms and banks become anxious, Eck’s work at the hedge fund becomes more sinister and morally questionable.

I liked the fact that the title character isn’t the story protagonist. It actually makes for a more robust character examination of Charlie Summers. Seeing him through Eck’s impartial eyes gives readers an unflinching summary of Charlie and his bumbling exploits. It feels a bit like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’, in that respect – Eck as narrator Nick Carraway, Charlie as the product of his storytelling, Jay Gatsby (though Charlie is far less suave);

I couldn’t leave Charlie alone and dripping on a chilly December day. I wasn’t sure that I liked Charlie. I felt that I had summed him up correctly the first time I saw him: a middle-aged drifter who left a trail of debts and damaged hopes wherever he went. But I couldn’t find it in me just to abandon him.

I appreciated the book’s timeline, as the story plays out during the 2007/08 ‘credit crunch’ that lead to the GFC (global financial crisis). I think this recent event offers a lot of food for thought and literary fodder, and Paul Torday certainly takes advantage of all the hilarious possibilities the global downturn has to offer.

The book is a study in contrasts, and wholly unique because of it. Torday has a wonderful writing style – blending quirky and banal to create a very distinct voice. The book is also a mix of high comedic drama, and dark undertones. Like the character of Charlie Summers, who is at once an endearing would-be entrepreneur and deluded middle-aged grifter. The novels’ contrasts are also beautifully encapsulated in the setting – as London goes from boom to bust in the wake of the credit crunch.

Ultimately though, I didn’t love this book. I appreciate the fact that Torday is brilliant at portraying hopeless middle-aged men who are plodding aimlessly along in life. But that wasn’t always a source of comedy for me, but more often derision. These ‘everymen’ bleak characters were quite predictable and sad, to me.
The plot also deteriorates into predictability toward the end. I also struggled to really understand Eck and Charlie’s connection and why Torday so insisted that the men’s paths keep crossing and their stories intertwine.

But for all of that, I was glad to be introduced to Paul Torday’s writing. Because when he’s funny, he’s really funny: laugh-out-loud and embarrass yourself while you’re reading on the train, funny.

2/5

1 comment:

  1. this is not really for me, but as usual I appreciate your honest reviews =)

    ReplyDelete