"Rarely in fiction have such execrably bad taste and such cruel wit been combined in one short satirical novel," writes one New York Times reviewer after reading Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One. He continues that it is a "thoroughly horrible and fiendishly entertaining book." In short, "Mr. Waugh has never written more brilliantly."
Simon S. at SavidgeReads agrees. He acknowledges that, although the book is "in some slightly dubious taste," it was one of his favorite reads in the past few years. "Ten out of ten!" Interestingly, Simon T. at Stuck in a Book points out that The Loved One is a little gentler and less caustic than some of Waugh's writing.
The story unfolds as Dennis Barlow, a British emigre and poet who now works at a pet cemetery (called the Happier Hunting Ground) in Hollywood, comes to a nearby full-service funeral home. At Whispering Glades, he meets Mr. Joyboy (embalmer to the stars) and Aimee Thanatogenos (a cosmetician for the newly deceased).
When a "mortuary hostess" greets visitors to Whispering Glades, they are told that "normal disposal is by inhumement, entombment, inurnment, or immurement, but many people just lately prefer insarcophagusment. That is very individual." There one can have a personal stained-glass window. "That, of course," says the hostess, "is for those with whom price is not a primary consideration."
But Hollywood is a world where only "the best will be good enough," so people pay to have their "loved ones"--that is, their deceased friends and relatives--taken care of and given a showy send-off.
Soon, a love triangle develops. Mr. Joyboy flirts with Aimee by affixing beatific smiles on the corpses before he sends them to her for final touches. Dennis, having hit a dry spot in his own writing, sends her love poems by famous poets and implies they are his own work. (At one point he "came near to exposure when she remarked that 'Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day' reminded her of something she had learned in school.") In short, Aimee is herself "the loved one" of both Mr. Joyboy and Dennis. And in fact, her first name means 'loved one' while her last name implies she is of the race of death.
Mr. Joyboy's activity of turning even bitter old men into smiling corpses and Dennis's prevarications highlight the phoniness and hypocrisy of their world. Everything is mere euphemism, without depth and without difficulty, without any heart or core. There are allusions to this theme throughout: Aimee's childhood name changes, a young actress is recreated from lusty flamenco dancer into wholesome Irish lass; Kaiser peaches are bred to grow without stones.
Perhaps best known for his novel Brideshead Revisited, Waugh was a writer whose Catholicism shaped a great deal of his fiction. In The Loved One, the characters' absences of traditional religious beliefs is highlighted as a reason for their artificiality and the hollowness at their cores. No alternative, Catholic or otherwise, is presented. Although I suspect Waugh may have intended his readers to consider the impact of his characters' agnosticism, an American reader today might be more likely to read his critique as a condemnation of artificiality in general and American infatuation with it more specifically.
But Waugh is not just skewering Americans in this book. As Amy points out on her blog Amy Reads, the author is also exploring themes of emigration and "poking fun at the British colonial mentality of always acting a certain way and being the best men around." The British ex-pats living in Hollywood have strict standards that they feel they must uphold as they look down on the naive Americans in their midsts. At moments, Waugh is one of them. At others, he is parodying their cool pomposity. No one escapes this book without a good routing.
One of my favorite scenes is when Aimee prepares herself for a date: "With a steady hand Aimee fulfilled the prescribed rites of an American girl preparing to meet her lover--dabbed herself under the arms with a preparation designed to seal the sweatglands, gargled another to sweeten the breath, and brushed into her hair some odorous drops from a bottle: Jungle Venom." She anoints her own body just as she prepares the bodies of her corpses.
Waugh seems like a caustic Wodehouse in this book where, as in Wooster and Jeeves, we see a confrontation between the intensely English trying to make sense of the intensely American. But here, the humor is not all there is. Entertaining as the book is, a plot twist at the end reminds us of the seriousness of Waugh's theme of the high price of artificiality and empty decoration.
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This book, along with most of Waugh's novels, is published in a beautiful Back Bay edition. The cover illustrations were created by Bill Brown. Each novel has a unique picture with a darkly whimsical style and design which reflects the era in which they were written while also seeming playfully new. They make me want to start collecting and get reading immediately!