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The Human Comedy - beautifully crafted and quite moving
on May 6, 2011
This novel, taking a look at the lives and loves of the British middle class, is squarely is the great tradition of Balzac's "Comedie Humaine." That's not to say that this book is a comedy, although it has its comic moments, but it takes a broad view of the inexplicable foibles of human beings in their search for love, sex, God, happiness, professional fulfillment and the need to be loved and appreciated.
The cast of characters is very large but the author exhibits tremendous skill is painting and delineation each individual so that they really come to life and stand out. The characters are loosely connected to one another in a kind of daisy chain. Belinda, who is very beautiful but "hollowed out by a combination of insincerity and dieting," is thinking she might enjoy having an affair but is wounded to the core when she discovers that her surgeon husband Tom is really having one. Tom is thrilled that Meg, a younger executive, really desires him and is willing to talk dirty -- but Meg really needs love. Meg's plumber Matt, who fixes violins in his spare time, thinks Meg could be the one for him. But Matt's mother, a nagging hypochondriac, cannot let her son go and will do anything to sabotage any relationship he may form.
Belinda's daughter Chloe sleeps with many boys and toys with them, breaking their hearts -- until she herself is toyed with by Guy, an older man and the father of Chloe's friend Belinda. And so it goes on.
One strength of this book is that the characters span all ages from childhood through sulky adolescence into youth, middle age and old age. Nicholson treats his characters gently and without condescension, observing their flailing attempts to find meaning in their lives with sympathy even when they blunder into horrible mistakes. "For all the changes of name and location," he observes, "the same things keep on happening and the world doesn't come to an end."
But this book is firmly grounded in time and place and Nicholson has a neat satirical touch, gently mocking the earnest attempts of well-meaning people to reduce their "carbon footprints." He takes a few, well-aimed swipes at modern art and modern movies. A screenplay about a stockbroker who becomes a shepherd is transformed into one about a shepherd who becomes a stockbroker -- and then into a plot in which the shepherd's dog becomes a stockbroker.
Matt, the plumber, one of the most sympathetic characters, describes the painstaking way in which he restores violins and the wonderful craftsmanship involved. That same attention to detail and beautiful craftsmanship describes the artful construction of this book. Most of the characters do not achieve happy endings, although some do -- but they find ways to muddle on. The end of this book is genuinely moving. I do heartily recommend this novel.