Have you ever read a book, put it down, and said “What the heck did I just read?”
That’s a pretty decent summary of Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Loved One. But here’s a longer one, just in case that’s not quite sufficient.
It’s the late 1940s, and displaced British poet Dennis Barlow has taken a job at a pet cemetery in Los Angeles. A few miles away, the naive and friendless Aimee Thanatogenos works as a cosmetician at the extravagant funeral home where Hollywood elites are buried. In this bizarre and biting critique of American culture, death lurks not around every corner, but among the formaldehyde and fluorescent lights of Happier Hunting Grounds and Whispering Glades.
Characters: Of the few characters in The Loved One, none of them are likeable, but they all have a strange magnetism. Dennis is so awful that he’s almost endearing, and Aimee is so dumb that she’s both fascinating and pitiable. I have no idea how Waugh pulls it off.
Plot: There isn’t exactly a linear plot. Sure, there’s a main conflict, but it doesn’t proceed neatly from beginning to end. It feels almost as if a bunch of events are strung together, and they carry you through the story. At the end they dump you on the ground and run away, cackling madly. When I put the book down, I stared at the wall for like five minutes. Then I read it again the next morning.
Style/ Execution: Waugh’s writing is clear, direct, and understated. He is merry, morbid, dry ,and witty; he’ll have you laughing your head off and feeling terrible about it.
Overall: The Loved One is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Imagine a kind of reverse LALALand: a novel that strips the sleekness and glossiness away from Los Angeles. Imagine The Great Gatsby without the nihilism: laughing at empty American culture instead of sinking to its level. Imagine a book by Flannery O’Connor, if she were a cynical, Catholic, English gentleman instead of a cynical, Catholic, Southern woman.
Now combine all those things. That’s the closest I can get to describing The Loved One. The effect makes for a highly enjoyable novel. Recommended for people who like sass, irony, and dark humor.
I can’t do it. I can’t assign The Loved One a numerical value that expresses both its objective quality and how much I enjoyed it. It’s too weird, and too great.
Have you ever read The Loved One? If not, does this make you want to read it or avoid it at all costs? Let me know in comments!