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47 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "The Titans were gone. They had clashed their last. Sir Edward Feathers... and Sir Terence Veneering were dead.", April 10, 2013
This review is from: Last Friends (Old Filth Trilogy) (Paperback)
(4.5 stars) The last novel of an unforgettable trilogy, LAST FRIENDS follows, first, OLD FILTH, the story of Sir Edward Feathers, who Failed in London, Tried Hongkong; hence his nickname. A Raj orphan, Filth grew up in Malaya, went to school in England, became a judge, and then worked for the Empire as a member of the foreign service. The second novel, THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, is the story of Filth's marriage to Betty, told from her point of view. Betty, who never really loved Filth, is reputed to have had an affair with Sir Terence Veneering, Filth's life-long rival in every aspect of life. Both of these novels are filled with wit, irony, and insights into people and relationships, especially those who serve the Empire overseas, and author Jane Gardam's ability to create scenes and unforgettable, often wry dialogue is almost unparalleled.

LAST FRIENDS, the third novel, is ostensibly the story of Sir Terence Veneering, a man of mysterious origins, Filth's rival and possibly Betty's lover. The novel opens as the villagers of St. Ague in Dorset, to which all three retired years ago, are preparing to travel to London for Old Filth's funeral, Betty and Veneering having passed on some time ago. The irrepressible Old Dulcie Williams, the village elder and widow of "Pastry Willy" Williams, a judge who was also in the foreign service, becomes the "voice" of the novel. Clearly dotty, and never shy, Dulcie provides the backstories of these characters, though she "sees" events which may or may not be real, has conversations with people who are long dead, and ignores anything (like the increasingly urgent communications from the bank) that might possibly complicate her life. She is joined in St. Ague by Fred Fiscal-Smith, who has come from Scotland on his way to the funeral, planning to spend some time visiting Dulcie. A retired solicitor and long-time friend of the three main characters, Fiscal-Smith is described by Dulcie as the "meanest," most impecunious person she has ever known.

Through Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith, the reader learns about Veneering's Russian acrobat father and sixteen-year-old British mother, his early childhood in rural Herringfleet, his experiences during the Blitz, his education, his connections with Fiscal-Smith, and his long, often parallel career with that of Filth. Allowing Dulcie, an unreliable narrator at best, to provide most of the information about the characters, gives Gardam the opportunity to write some of her funniest scenes ever, filling them with hilarious patter worthy of the best dramatic comedy. A classic scene in which Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith get locked in the church in St. Ague is laugh-out-loud funny, not a description one normally associates with Gardam, who is usually so subtle and sly with her wit and irony.

At her (surprisingly) boisterous best here, Gardam still manages to create scenes of sensitivity and understanding, especially toward Fiscal-Smith, a sad and lonely old man. While some might argue that this novel is a stand-alone, it is actually the culmination of three novels and will be far more memorable to those who have read the novels which have come before it and fully understand the contexts. A lively and memorable trilogy which lovers of literary fiction will celebrate for its ironies and insights, this trilogy begs to be made into a film or TV series.
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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 13, 2013 3:30:54 PM PDT
Mary, your first three paragraphs make an excellent teaser for this very strange ragbag of a novel, but your fourth leaves me baffled. "While some might argue that this novel is a stand-alone (and it is in terms of its focus and direction)...". In my opinion, it is the LACK of focus and direction that prevent it from standing alone. It is very difficult to see the unity in a book consisting of scraps from the lives of two tertiary characters, Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith (from NE England, incidentally, not Scotland), plus glimpses of the youth of a secondary one (Veneering) who is now dead. It seems to me that the only chance of a reader being interested is if they have already formed an affection for these characters in the earlier books, and that can go either way.

We both agree that OLD FILTH is a very fine book indeed; you seem to have extended your opinion of that to cover its two successors, while for me it sets a standard that is very hard to match. I remember arguing with you that THE MAN WITH THE WOODEN HAT, though interesting, was a distinct come-down. But it is because I think so much of OLD FILTH that I find myself very saddened by this sorry offering, seeing it either as a mere set of footnotes to please the fans, or one trip to the well too many to please the publisher. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2013 4:29:30 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 14, 2013 4:39:03 AM PDT
Mary Whipple says:
Roger, we disagree again. I think this is Gardam's funniest, most boisterous book, a point you barely acknowledge, and it answers many questions regarding the lives of the three characters. I also cannot imagine why anyone would read a book that is clearly advertised as the last book of a trilogy without having read the first two books. Your review was for people who hadn't read the first two books. Mine was for people who had. I don't think there's a middle ground. :-)

Posted on May 14, 2013 5:23:14 AM PDT
Thanks for responding, Mary. I did not regard the book as particularly funny, I'm afraid, certainly not enough for it to be worth reading for that alone. My review, and my note here, had I believe two purposes: to warn people off who had not read the first two, and also (for different reasons) to warn people off who HAD. I don't imagine we have much argument over the first point. On the second, as you say, there is no middle ground. You still had enough residual interest in the original characters to enjoy picking up scraps about their sidekicks. I had such respect for the original that I felt it almost an insult to have to deal with the leavings of the rich meal I had already been served. My guess is that readers of the other two will be pretty much evenly divided between our views. Roger.

Posted on May 14, 2013 5:32:22 AM PDT
P.S. I have altered the second sentence of my review to make its two-track nature even clearer: 2 stars for newcomers, perhaps 3 stars for fans. The review still ends thus:

"Gardam writes well, as always, and she has an almost Dickensian feeling for the comic potential of English class. But these qualities are not enough. This is HAMLET after the Prince and Claudius are dead. Who cares?"

This does indeed mention the comedy, and certainly the Hamlet reference makes it clear that, like you, I was also addressing readers who had been in since the start.

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2013 5:49:36 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 14, 2013 6:12:16 AM PDT
Mary Whipple says:
I'm intrigued by the fact that you "did not regard the book as particularly funny." I think that's its greatest strength. Much of the dialogue is like a vaudeville skit in its back and forth. The scene in which Dulcie is trapped inside the little church is hilarious, and the book is the first I've seen in which Jane Gardam really lets her hair down. I don't regard this as "Hamlet after the Prince and Claudius are dead." I see it as much simpler, more basic, more down to earth, a different and ironic take on the lives of the three dead characters, with, perhaps, Judi Dench or Jessica Tandy as a model for the ditsy Dulcie to give the whole thing perspective.

Posted on May 14, 2013 6:18:16 AM PDT
Comedy can be very elusive. It also depends on nationality. As this is to some extent my [British] world, I am likely to have a different view; you would think that I might laugh more, but I have found this is not always the case. I was singularly unamused by Ian McEwan's SOLAR, for example. I will leave you with your view of the book as touching irony, wishing only that I could share it. Roger.

Posted on May 14, 2013 1:13:40 PM PDT
I am interested in your suggesting a TV series, and even discussing the casting. But how to do this, I wonder? The original trilogy has two books that were synchronous, and a third mostly around the edges of the other two. But film and TV do not generally work like that (RASHOMON excepted). So the biggest single decision would be how to treat the element of time. A bit like Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, which has three synchronous books plus one sequel. And I don't think anybody has tried that. Roger.

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2013 2:12:58 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on May 14, 2013 2:26:53 PM PDT]

In reply to an earlier post on May 14, 2013 2:18:39 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on May 14, 2013 2:46:54 PM PDT
Mary Whipple says:
Not suggesting casting. Jessica Tandy died almost twenty years ago, and Judi Dench is blind as a result of macular degeneration and is on medication to slow Alzheimer's. I do imagine, however, that the BBC might do a series with one year for Filth, one for Betty, and one for the Veneering/Dulcie thread in the LAST FRIENDS novel.

Posted on Jun 15, 2013 4:58:22 AM PDT
MDS says:
Mary, I discovered this author back in 1991 with 'Queen of the Tambourine' and have been a huge fan ever since. It was only with 'Old Filth' that she received a wider and well deserved readership in the US. After reading this review I skimmed though your other reviews of her books, all thoughtful and well argued. Your exchanges with Roger equally entertaining!
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Mary Whipple

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