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The Hopeless Life Of Charlie Summers by Paul Torday
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Apr 28, 2010

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Read in April, 2010

The world has barely recovered from the recent financial crisis, but productive English writer Paul Torday, who has written practically a book a year since his successful debut Salmon Fishing In The Yemen in 2006, has already come up with a novel about it.

Our narrator is the impressively-named Hector Chetwode-Talbot, thankfully known as Eck to his friends. A former military man, Eck has been hired by an old schoolmate as the "Director -- Client Relations" for his hedge fund -- less because of any financial knowledge or business acumen, and more because Eck knows rich people and is likeable.

As Eck describes himself self-deprecatingly: "I was Eck, good old Eck, not the sharpest tool in the box, but an officer in a decent regiment once upon a time, and thoroughly trustworthy. If Eck thinks it's a good thing to be in, then it must be a no-brainer."

He is with his landowner friend -- and potential client -- Henry in the south of France when they meet Charlie Summers, whom Eck describes unflatteringly as "a rather grubby-looking man in his forties... a typical middle-aged drifter". As Henry observes, however, Charlie is Eck's doppelganger: "Apart from the fact that he's older, he could be your brother."

Charlie turns out to be a conman par incompetence. Back in England, he endeavours to hawk "Japanese" dog food -- really prepared locally with "scraps of dried vegetable that were described on the label as 'specially selected alginates from the Sea of Japan'" -- somehow failing to realise that making doggies ill with dodgy food is a flaw in his business plan.

The author alternates descriptions of Charlie about his work with the shenanigans of the hedge fund, not-so-subtly presenting Eck as essentially a high-end version of his lookalike. And as ominous mentions of mortages and US sub-prime debt begin to crop up, Eck realises this too: "What, in the end, was the difference between me and someone selling Japanese dog food or revolting Dutch wine? There wasn't one, except no one really went bust buying things from Charlie Summers."

But even while being a biting satire of the finance industry, the novel belies genre conventions with complex and sympathetic characters. In Charlie Summers, the author has created a memorable, moving figure -- tragic, Quixotic, and ultimately strangely noble.
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