The Epicure’s Lament, by Kate Christensen
I’ve been noticing that there are a fair number of heroes and heroines floating around my periphery lately that don’t quite fit the mold of your standard paragon of social rectitude. In the television world, there are the arguably flawed Holly Hunter character from Saving Grace; the revegeful team at Leverage, and the cranky misanthropic Gregory House, from House. In literature, my favorites are the great Russian accidentals, people who just fall into rotten times and prove themselves to be, at the least, capable of doing terrible things: Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment; Anna Karenina, to name two. In real life, even, there are a number of people in my life I wouldn’t exactly throw into a party, but whose company I keep; people who always say the wrong thing or are somehow incapable of joining in a conversation. They keep me on my toes, these people. They have new and different insights, and I enjoy their company quite a bit, if only because they don’t engage in idle conversation for the facility of the thing.
Kate Christensen’s protagonist, Hugo Whittier, is one of these. He is conniving, sexually driven, with a shady past. But Hugo has two or three things going for him: 1., we never hear that he’s unattractive, just that he’s craggy and lean; 2., he keeps to himself and likes it that way, living in almost hermit-like conditions at his family’s estate; 3., he’s independently wealthy, and so is not a mooch. These are all things that are critical, if you’re going to be a stain on society’s tablecloth.
I wondered, as I sometimes do when I’m watching “House” or “Saving Grace,” or when I’m with a friend who says something so off-color that it stops the entire conversation in its tracks, why I was letting Hugo drag me on his crazy journey of a life, which is, by the way, about to end due to a potentially terminal, obscure disease called Brueger’s. (It’s exacerbated by smoking, which Hugo does, with great pleasure.) I didn’t particularly like him; I didn’t particularly care what happened to him, and I didn’t really enjoy watching him excoriate the people around him.
But this is where Kate Christensen works her magic. There is something incredibly soothing about Hugo’s voice over the time arc of the book. There is a logic to his idle chit-chat to himself that encourages the reader to move on to the next page, and before you know it, you’re halfway through the book and buried deep in Hugo’s life. Perhaps we all recognize the internal dialogue that gets put on the pages of a diary; the bizarre sort of talking to one’s self tone that implies some kind of forward journey towards understanding why we do what we do, and the very curious thing that happens when we look back on our notebooks and think, “Ah. It all makes sense now.” Of course, at the time of writing, the writer can’t see what everyone else sees.
Even though we don’t like Hugo, we are carried through the 400-some-odd pages that make up this book, and we’re suddenly at the end. But Christensen makes one grave mistake: she creates a predictable arc of growth of Hugo. Our hero, the mistanthrope, must not die without finding redemption in some way, shape, or form, and the resulting denouement of the book falls totally flat on its face. Likewise, Christensen seems hell-bent on forcing Hugo to be an epicure (it’s the reason I picked up this book; I liked the idea of a misanthrope who loves to cook), but the moments we see him engaging in these tasks of cooking seem too few between ponderings on relationships and philosophy to be anything resembling a linchpin of his personality, although he seems to see it that way.
But I still liked this book. Christensen is a fine descriptor of characters and people, and she’s a master of telling the backstory without letting us get bogged down in it. Hugo’s circumstances seem a little too pat; a little too perfectly crafted, but I enjoyed te language of this book, and, despite myself, the story arc that happened so germanely that I never even knew it was happening until I was totally enthralled with it.
If you’re going to hang out with shady characters, anyway, they might as well be independently wealthy and be absolutely capable of executing a brilliant turn of phrase, no?