In the tradition of Honest Trailers (which are hilarious, if you haven’t watched any), here’s my second Honest Plot Synopsis. Because sometimes the blurb on the back of the book just spins your expectations in the completely wrong direction. For example:
In the late summer of 1913 the young poet Cecil Valance comes to stay at ‘Two Acres’, the home of his close Cambridge friend George Sawle, and of his sister, Daphne. The weekend will be one of excitements and confusions for all the Sawles, a weekend in which a poem is written which will become a touchstone for a generation, an evocation of an England about to change for ever.
Linking the Sawle and Valance families irrevocably, the shared intimacies of this weekend become legendary events in a larger story, told and interpreted in different ways over the ensuing century, and subjected to the scrutiny of critics and biographers with their own agendas and anxieties. In a sequence of widely separated episodes we follow the two families through startling changes in fortune and circumstance.
At the centre of this often richly comic history of sexual mores and literary reputation runs the story of Daphne, from innocent girlhood to wary old age. Around her Hollinghurst draws an absorbing picture of an England constantly in flux.
I mean, throw me a a book about rich English people pre-World Wars and I’m there. I am an ideal product of Western education in that I love reading about some Rich White People Problems. Oppress me, my masters! I in turn will muse longingly on your castled existence of sloping green lawns and halcyon summers, your inability to resolve basic issues by simply talking to one another, and your utter obliviousness to flagrant homosexuality.
Here’s a better description of this book:
In The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst affectionately laughs up his sleeve at the “subtleties” of the likes of Evelyn Waugh and E.M. Forster, beginning in 1913 when sixteen-year-old Daphne gets her very first crush on a gay dude. Named Cecil. He’s her brother George’s “friend” from “Cambridge”.
Okay, they actually do go to Cambridge.
Hollinghurst shamelessly uses symbolism and in-jokes to nudge the modern reader into chuckling at Daphne’s näiveté. When George and Cecil go out for a post-prandial walk, she follows them to see if she can get a bit of a chat in with Cecil. She can’t see because it’s dark, but she follows the smell of their cigars:
“Oh, are you here?” she said, and she pushed on, under the low branches that screened the hammock on that side. “I’ve left my books out here, in the dew… Isn’t Cecil with you?” she said artfully.
“Ha…!” said Cecil softly, just above her, and pulled on his cigar…
“Are you both in the hammock! …Well, I must say…”
Guys, they are in the hammock together smoking cigars.
“Oh, I thought it was Cecil’s cigar,” she said simply… “So it was,” said George, in his most paradoxical tone. “I’m smoking Cecil’s cigar, too.”
“Oh really…” said Daphne, not knowing what tone to give the words.
Later, Cecil will joke-make-out with her (he’s kind of a jerk) and she will feel what she believes is “the hard shape of the cigar case in his trouser pocket thrusting against her stomach.” Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Not in this book.
This poor girl will marry Cecil’s brother after Cecil dies in WWI and then go on to marry two other gay dudes.
Before he dies, Cecil writes a crappy poem supposedly for her, but actually for George. The poem becomes famous after the war, when people are so nostalgic for pre-war times they’ll seize on any sappy shit to help them remember Ye Olden Times. Kind of like people who put fake Marilyn Monroe quotes on their Facebook profiles because they relate to how beautiful and tragic she was, because they, too, are too beautiful for this world only no one, not even we can understand that.
As the book jumps forward in time decade by decade, we see characters in more recent times try to puzzle out the mystery of Cecil’s personality, and we get an overview of the advance of gay rights and acceptance in England.* And we have the luxury of laughing at how dumb people used to be and also the discomfort of knowing that one day people will laugh at us for how dumb we are.
*Okay, this stuff is actually pretty interesting. And Alan Hollinghurst is a really good writer and you should read the book. But not because of the stuff it says on the back cover.