Review of The Loved One

Originally published in 2 parts, on March 24-26, 2004.
Book 9 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Evelyn Waugh
Published: 1948
Where got: second-hand bookshop
Genre: Social satire

I first saw the movie as a child and again recently on TCM. I had no idea it was based on a book until I started reading about the film on IMDb, and when I found the book I immediately bought it in anticipation of a good read.

Here are a couple of links to information about the author and his books:

Evelyn Waugh: The best and the worst
Evelyn Waugh (includes a bibliography)

The novel tells the story of Dennis Barlow, a poet and ex-pat Englishman who has managed to make himself a nuisance to the stiff upper-lipped Englishmen of Hollywood by taking a job at a funeral home for pets - something that "just isn't done" by Englishmen Abroad. When arranging the funeral of a friend at Whispering Glades, a fancy and extremely kitsch funeral home, he meets a young cosmetician by the name of Aimée whose job it is to apply make-up to the faces of the dead in order to make them look presentable to the living.
Their budding romantic relationship is described with subtle humour. Aimée is quite beautiful and outwardly different from other American girls Dennis has met, but her lovely exterior belies her empty-headedness and ignorance. Aimée is very unsure of herself and writes regularly for advice from Guru Brahmin, a newspaper agony aunt whose real name is Mr. Slump. Not really aided by the Guru's advice, she has a hard time deciding between Dennis and her other suitor, Mr. Joyboy, the senior mortician at the funeral home. Things start to heat up once both suitors start playing dirty. Death and the rituals connected with it suffuse the novel from beginning to end.

The Loved One is a dark and often quite subtle satire, even becoming quite morbid at times. It deftly satirises the movie business, the funeral industry, American society and Americans in general. Mind you, Dennis Barlow is no paragon of virtue...

Sometimes the satire becomes quite obvious, like whenever Waugh starts describing Americans in general - his description of the uniformity of American women is sneeringly bitter and quite funny:

"Dennis at once forgot everything about her. He had seen her before everywhere. American mothers presumably knew their daughters apart but to the European eye the Mortuary hostess was one with all her sisters of the air-liners and the reception-desks. She was the standard product. A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again in a cigar stall in San Francisco and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse."

It's hard to tell if Waugh is being sarcastic here or if he really feels this way about American women. (Yes, I know this is a novel, but there are certain indications in Waugh's life story that in this book he was lashing out at American society in reaction to being frustrated by American film-makers who had optioned his book, Brideshead Revisited for a movie).

Rating: A dark, subtle and funny look at life, death and what comes after. 4 stars.


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