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Past Imperfect - Julian Fellowes

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

WITH two screenplays under his belt – the Oscar-winning Gosford Park and The Young Victoria – as well as his debut novel, the international bestseller Snobs, you’d expect Julian Fellowes’ second novel, Past Imperfect, to be good. And you’d be partly right because it is, in fact, extremely good.

The story revolves around Damian Baxter, a terminally ill, self-made millionaire who, after receiving an anonymous letter from an ex-girlfriend suggesting that he may have fathered her child, determines to discover the truth – for who else will inherit his fortune? However, there is only one person who can help him in his quest – his sworn enemy, the unnamed narrator…

It’s a story that slips effortlessly between the present day and the ‘coming-out’ Season of 1968, an almost forgotten age when lavish balls and parties for debutantes – girls like Lucy, Dagmar, Serena, Joanna, Terry and Candida – and eligible young men constituted a marriage-go-round for the sons and daughters of the rich and famous.

Past Imperfect is well written and boasts a plethora of well-drawn characters, not least Damian himself who appears first as a man ‘not just old before his time but ill, very ill, and seemingly past the point of no return.’ A description that contrasts cruelly with that of the young Damian, ‘the broad and handsome young man with the thick curls and the easy smile.’

It’s here that Fellowes excels with his insightful and honest appraisal of the human condition – not just with regards to looks but also thoughts, prejudices and beliefs – and how it changes over the years. In fact, he was inspired to write Past Imperfect following a chance meeting with ‘the great love’ of his late teens who had morphed into a ‘matron with grown children’ – something (or something similar) that we’re all destined to experience sooner or later.

So while Past Imperfect is poignant and at times moving, it’s also very funny, the latter due largely to Fellowes’ wit and devilish sense of humour. There’s even a hint of slapstick from time to time, as with the incident involving the strawberries which, somewhat incongruously perhaps, takes place during the long-awaited showdown in Portugal.

Portugal – or rather what happened there – is, in fact, a key factor in a plot designed to mystify and whet the imagination in equal measure, thus ensuring Past Imperfect‘s status as a page turner. And although not immediately apparent, it’s also a love story, one that will certainly tug at the heartstrings – as indeed will Candida’s story involving the notorious 9/11 disaster.

There were, however, times when I felt I was reading an autobiography – a tribute, of course, to Fellowes’ gift for bringing a story to life. Nevertheless, the narrator’s no-nonsense views on subjects such as plastic surgery, sexuality, drug taking and drunkenness, made me wonder…

One of Richard and Judy’s summer reads, Past Imperfect comes highly recommended but not just for lazy days by the hotel pool (or wherever!) but for anytime and anyplace. Believe me, you really won’t be disappointed.