Always feels a bit funny coming up with a rating for a book on a second reading – especially one I remember so clearly. The plot’s not going to work on me in nearly the same way. But that being said, Lodge undeniably knows what he’s doing. His characters and settings are strong, detailed, researched, nuanced. Even though you know he’s doing a job (unlike some authors that seem to sweep you along in a story, with the characters and settings somehow being painted in along the way, occasionally it’s abundantly clear that Lodge is pausing to set a new scene or convey an idea), he does it enormously capably. And why not have a shrewd observer like Lodge taking verbal snapshots of 80s interactions, mores and social conditions? [Spoilers] The ending is twee, but it’s foregrounded as such, it’s Lodge saying that this novel is in the ‘happy ending’ genre, and a sudden uncle we’d barely heard of leaving a legacy combining perfectly with an unexpected retrenchment is overtly manipulated.
I enjoy the thought that Lodge puts into his characters. Even the minor characters aren’t generally dismissed as merely this or that – there’s a sense that there’s more to them but this isn’t necessarily their story. Phillip Swan, for example (surely more biographical than several other characters, with the hearing loss, for example, as a giveaway – although that could just be Lodge drawing on his own experience to add texture), is known far more intimately to many readers via the preceding ‘Changing Places’, but here we get Robyn Penrose’s somewhat cursory impression of a slightly comic dodderer. But we know it’s just an impression, as is that of Danny Ram or Vic’s daughter.
He’s not so much a gag writer, or a stylistic wit in the Wodehouse tradition, but Lodge keeps a deftly humorous undertone throughout – mainly through the interplay of characters from such disparate perspectives.
I sense in Lodge a tendency towards covetousness. I liken him to Charles – someone pestered by the thought that he might be missing out: is someone else getting more money? Having better sex more often? Fortunately here he’s not as preachy as Paradise News (as with Lively he might get more didactic with age), but offers more observation than judgement.
It’s so hard not to glibly use the title of this book to sum it up. It doesn’t have some of the slap in the face poignancy of How Far Can You Go, but it’s, perhaps, more than merely good because of how well the whole thing works together.