published: 30th April 2020
‘Your brother takes me for a barbarian, Mr Bowen. But I assure you, I’m quite well trained.’
When Benjamin and Edgar Bowen embark on a Grand Tour of Europe, they are ready to meet People of Quality. They have trunks full of powdered silver wigs and matching suits, a hunger to experience the architectural wonders of Ancient Rome and an ability to quote Voltaire (at length). They will make connections and establish themselves in high society, just as their mother has planned.
But it soon becomes apparent that their outfits are not quite the right shade of grey, their smiles are too ready, their appreciation of the arts ridiculous. Class, they learn, is not something that can be studied.
Benjamin’s true education begins when he meets Horace Lavelle. Beautiful, charismatic, seductive, Lavelle delights in skewering the pretensions and prejudices of their milieu. He consumes Benjamin’s every thought.
Love can transform a person. Can it save them?
Galley provided by publisher
CWs: child abuse, period typical antisemitism & homophobia (inc. violence, murder of a gay character), past child sexual abuse, suicide
The Intoxicating Mr. Lavelle is, of sorts, a historical coming of age tale. It follows two brothers on their Grand Tour in what is, effectively, their first year in society. Having previously followed one another in almost everything (through no real fault of their own), suddenly the brothers find themselves split asunder, when the eponymous Mr. Lavelle makes an appearance. Benjamin, the narrator, is drawn into Mr. Lavelle’s orbit, while Edgar mulishly persists in doing as their mother told them.
Initially, I will admit, the writing style took a little getting used to. It’s not like I disliked it at the start or anything: I just found it took a moment for me to actually be able to read it quickly (honestly though, if a book has a writing style I actually have to spend time reading, I start to not like it. More brain perversions). But then I got into it and the writing style did not matter.
This is a very character-driven novel, so it’s a good thing it presents you with a bunch of very distinct and well-developed characters. I found it easy to root for Benjamin throughout, and also Edgar (if only mostly to feel sorry for him, even as he seemed a little caricaturish in his desire to be accepted at times). I also loved the progression of Lavelle’s character through Benjamin’s eyes, as he goes from being almost an object of Benjamin’s worship, to becoming more human and fragile.
It’s clear from the start of the novel that the story does not have a happy ending. And I don’t think I ever expected it to, really. In a way, Benjamin and Lavelle’s relationship is never really a healthy one (and it’s never meant to be, I don’t think), so the tragic ending to it was always in the cards. Yes, I wish it hadn’t happened how it happened (and the death of another gay character who had been the victim of sexual abuse was not exactly great), but also, it was sort of telegraphed. I have accepted it (even if I still don’t like it).
I think, though, the reason I did not enjoy this book more than 3 stars (although that is still a positive rating for me, and that is a hill I will die on), is that introspective, character-driven novels are not my thing. Every once in a blue moon, I will find one I love, sure, but on the whole, it’s lucky that I even like them. So really, taking the genre into account, coming from me this is like a 5 star review (I think).
Which means you should definitely read it.