Kate's Reviews > Past Imperfect

Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
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's review
Jan 22, 2012

did not like it
Recommended for: people who wish they were posh
Read in January, 2012

Past Imperfect is set in 1968, where everybody in the upper classes is trying to pretend its the 20s, but thanks to the sepia-coloured narration we can tell that their days are numbered, and what a surprise, you can tell that they kind of know it too. The narrator, now a writer, was a peripheral part of the debutante set who introduced a charming, handsome, distinctly middle-class interloper Damien Baxter into their set. A natural social climber, Damien seems intent on penetrating the upper-class sanctum and soon has plenty of affluent debutantes falling at his feet, but which is put paid to by *something terrible* which happens one dinner while the whole jolly set vacation in Portugal. Something so terrible that conveniently nobody can speak of it directly, so we’re forced to hang on to the bitter end to find out what it is [spoiler alert: he doesn't go postal with a WWII service revolver OR reveal he's slept with everyone's parents OR take a dump on HRH Princess Dagmar of Moravia's bed in full view of the assembled company, as much as you wish he would by that stage].

Forty years later, Damien – now a millionaire tycoon – calls our narrator to his deathbed to announce that he thinks he’s fathered a child by one of six of these women, and wants to find out whose his rightful heir is so he can find some meaning in his depressingly affluent, empty life.

And so, this writer faithfully calls up each of these women in turn to solve the mystery, and revisits his memories of their relationship with him, and Damien, in the process. Despite being confessedly unremarkable and unattractive in his youth, he is inexplicably perfectly recalled by each and so amicable that over a lunch or a cup of tea each woman is only too eager to confide certain salient details that conveniently eliminate them from his enquiries. Their husbands don’t understand them, but our narrator does, so that’s okay. Each were so beautiful, and so full of promise, but are now washed up and miserable in their own ways. In fact, he manages to patronise pretty much every single character, doling out the elegies for the lost promise of the waning aristocracy and pity for their dashed hopes and dreams that lucky for him, only his nomadic existance as a writer seems to escape.

Don’t worry though, the lower classes get their spot in the sun too – for example, when he visits a village fete after visiting Damien:

Naturally, it was very old-fashioned, and I am sure that if a New Labour minister could be offended by the Last Night of the Proms, she would be rendered suicidal by the sight of this comic, uniquely English event, but there was goodness here. These people had worked hard at what I would once have judged as such a little thing, yet their efforts were not wasted on me; in fact they almost made me cry.

Well you can fuck off from my tombola stall, Julian Fellowes, that’s for damn sure.

When he’s not making snide asides at the ‘Health and Safety Stasi’ and New Labour of the present day, there are actually some interesting digressions into upper class traditions, although the way that they are condensed into mini-essays suggests a quick shoehorning in of research. But equally, you get doozies like this:

To employ a phrase not actually in use for twenty years after this, I decided to cut to the chase.

…where a diligent proofreader seems to have questioned his choice of cliche, only for him to spectacularly miss the point. Is that more charitable than suggesting someone wrote that first time round? I don’t even know anymore.

Anyway, you’ll be forced to trudge on through this mire of condescension to the bitter end because, I’ll hand it to him, the man makes you want to know whose the bloody baby is, and what happened that night in Portugal. So maybe it is a great novel after all.
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Reading Progress

08/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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Elisabeth This review pretty much sums it all up for me too, so I'll pass on writing one of my own ;-)

message 2: by Patrick (new)

Patrick Smith Very accurate review

Naim Peress I like that Fellowes keeps us waiting.

message 4: by Heather (last edited Jul 03, 2017 07:19AM) (new) - added it

Heather C I'm still reading but would suggest the narrator was more nuanced in his descriptions of the cast than this review proclaims - then and in the present. Not ALL were beautiful and unattractive now. I felt the narrator did a good job comparing and contrasting the changes he saw and his own personal flaws he brought to both views. Baxter immediately hit the scene with a remarkable presence and talent that was necessarily missing from the entitled crowd he was exploring. Deserves more stars, in my opinion.

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