For ten years, Hugo Whittier, upper-class scion, former gigolo, failed belle lettriste,
has been living a hermit's existence at Waverly, his family's crumbling mansion overlooking the Hudson. He passes the time reading Montaigne and M. F. K. Fisher, cooking himself delicious meals, smoking an endless number of cigarettes, and nursing a grudge against the world. But his older brother, Dennis, has returned, in retreat from an unhappy marriage, and so has his estranged wife, Sonia, and their (she claims) daughter Bellatrix, shattering Hugo's cherished solitude. He's also been told by a doctor that he has the rare Buerger's disease, which means that unless he stops smoking, he will die—all the more reason for Hugo to light up, because his quarrel with life is bitter and an early death is a most attractive prospect.
As Hugo smokes and cooks and sexually schemes and pokes his perverse nose into other people's marriages and business, he records these events as well as his mordant, funny, gorgeously articulated personal history and his thoughts on life and mortality in a series of notebooks. His is one of the most perversely compelling literary personalities to inhabit a novel since John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure
, and his ancestors include the divinely cracked and eloquent narrators of the works of Nabokov. As snobbish and dislikable as Hugo is, his worldview is so seductively conveyed that even the most resistant readers will be put under his spell. His insinuating voice gets into their heads and under their skin in the most seductive way. And as he prepares what may be his final Christmas feast for family and friends, readers will have to ask, "Isthis the end of Hugo?"
Imagine the book the young hero of the independent film hit Igby Goes Down
might write twenty-five years from now, and you'll get an idea of the powerfully peculiar charm of The Epicure's Lament.
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