Book: The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
Age/Genre: Adult Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: I enjoyed reading this in the car, so if you’re not inclined to motion sickness, I’d recommend that.
Reading Accoutrements: A strong drink.
Content Notes: Sexism, Racism, Suicide
Happy Valentine’s Week! Whether you love or hate the hallmark holiday, a satire called The Loved One is sure to be perfect to set the mood, right?
Well, maybe more for the V-day skeptics.
If you’re unfamiliar with Evelyn Waugh, he was an British writer in the early 20th century. He’s known for works like Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust. As with much satire, Waugh’s writing served to critique society, particularly high society. I read and enjoyed A Handful of Dust in a college literature course, and I keep noticing his books in used book stores, so I have a small collection that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while.
A large part of why Waugh’s books catch my eye is the cover design. Bay Back Books has re-released many of Waugh’s works with new covers designed by Rymn Massand and illustrated by Bill Brown. These covers have a fun, period-appropriate art style that not only catches the eye, but provides a consistent look. When I see one of these releases while skimming a shelf, I immediately recognize the style and think “Oh, something by Evelyn Waugh.” This is what led me to picking up The Loved One, which my husband, Michael, and I both read on a weekend trip this last year.
The Loved One opens on the porch of the Hollywood home of Sir Francis Hinsley and his young roommate Dennis Barlow. They are soon joined by Sir Ambrose Abercrombie, who takes it upon himself to lecture Dennis about his recent studio contract loss. Dennis should, according to Ambrose, take care not to accept a job that would shame his fellow Brits. Englishmen should take respectable jobs and Dennis should continue to pursue his poetry and other higher callings, rather than settle for “lesser” work and give his fellow Englishmen a bad name in the process.
Of course, Dennis has already procured a job that the old English snobs would find unsuitable. He is the assistant at a pet mortuary that caters to the wealthy. Dennis retrieves people’s deceased pets, helps with incineration and burials, makes sure cute anniversary cards are sent to past clients, and attempts to write in his spare time. He has had some previous success in publishing, and came to Hollywood to work on scripts, but is currently lacking both a contract and inspiration.
A major theme in this book is changing times: the world is evolving, trends are changing, and the old order is becoming irrelevant. Dennis’s roommate, Sir Francis Hinsley, loses his position with the studio in favor of a younger up-and-comer with fresh ideas. Hinsley then takes his life, and Dennis is tasked with the funeral arrangements. Of course, Ambrose Abercrombie and the other British expats insist on the best for one of their own.
Dennis enlists the services of Whispering Glades, a mortuary and cemetery for the wealthy. Whispering Glades is a direct, not-subtle-at-all parody of Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood, which Waugh visited in 1947 while he was trying to negotiate a movie deal. Forest Lawn is known for celebrity burials and a sort of personal spiritualism that conveniently brings in a lot of money.
Whispering Glades has all sorts of luxury options for relatives of the deceased, who aren’t referred to as corpses, bodies, or even “the deceased,” but as “loved ones.” They offer extreme personalization, with the option to have a lounging room available for a sort of “good-bye party” where the loved one’s body, which has been made up to be as life-like as much as possible, is dressed up in fancy clothes and posed for a final reception with friends and family. Dennis is fascinated by Whispering Glades and wants to apply some some of the ideas to the pet mortuary. The owner, however, is not impressed, and does not believe people will pay exorbitant prices for faux spiritual pet burials.
At Whispering Glades, Dennis becomes infatuated with Aimee, a cosmetologist who works with the loved ones. Aimee, on the other hand, is infatuated with her superior, Mr. Joyboy. She admires his caring work with the loved ones, and he admires her skill and plans on making her his protégé of sorts. I have to admit, the workplace fraternization between a superior and a woman trying to build her career made me a bit uncomfortable. This was not uncommon in the 40s, but the book itself goes on to show many of the downsides of such a relationship.
Dennis was instantly entranced with Aimee. There’s a lovely scene where Dennis laments the unattractive, generic quality of most American women, right before Aimee walks in and he can only focus on her appearance, rather than the professional encounter they are supposed to be having. Aimee is completely uninterested in Dennis until she finds out he writes poetry. So of course, she asks Dennis to write some verses for her, and, suffering from writer’s block, he swipes love poems from the classics and passes them off as his own.
Aimee spends most of the book fretting over who she should be with, Dennis or Mr. Joyboy. It doesn’t really seem like she really likes either of them, she just needs to find a husband, and they’re both interested in her, so she feels obligated to pick one. Having no close family or friends, Aimee consults a newspaper advice column for all of her important decisions. She writes frequently, updating the column writers on her romantic predicament and following the advice they send her.
Will Dennis get caught in his lies? Will Aimee figure out who she is meant to be with? Who is the Loved One that the book title refers to? For these mysteries, you’ll have to read more, and the answers may not bring you joy, but it’s a short, funny, outrageous read, well worth the time.
Waugh was definitely a writer of his time, so some of the words and phrases he uses might be unfamiliar or seem a little off to modern readers. But being satire, the tone is relatively light and the writing is witty and engaging.
The main critiques, of course, are of the commercialization and commodification of death, as well as some of the outdated pride that the British have for just being British. There’s a lot of pointing out of stereotypes and showing how the movie industry and death industry both capitalize on them. Waugh’s characters all serve as a critique of themselves, being either comic caricatures, aimless assholes, or wavering women. I feel like the writing is more biting and critical of Aimee, who is silly and indecisive, than it is of Dennis, who is a lying manipulator. Dennis isn’t painted in a favorable light, but the perspective is skewed toward him, and his happier-than-anyone-else’s ending is presented in an “ain’t it funny how the world works” sort of way, lacking any damnation.
This certainly isn’t a romantic read, but if you’re looking for a couple of laughs and a love triangle, you could do a lot worse. It will be a nice change of pace if you’ve been forced to watch any hallmark movies or Meg Ryan movies in honor of Valentine’s Day. It’s an especially good choice if you want a reason to rant about how the world is full of assholes and you want to stay single forever as you slam the book shut in frustration only to pick it right back up to find out what ridiculousness will ensue.