A British family separated by divorce, money, and 15 years without sitting down to dinner together is lumpily reconciled in Louise Dean’s fourth novel, The Old Romantic. Estranged from one of his sons and irritated to suffocation by his second wife, Ken Goodyew is finding his retirement in a less picturesque corner of a British countryside somewhat less than relaxing. He entices his older son Nick, a lawyer, to come home for a family dinner only to discuss wills and trusts; after that attempt collapses, he enlists grandson Matt in looking for arsenic-pill sales online, and appoints himself as an unpaid helper at a local funeral home, run by the statuesque Audrey Bury. The undue attention he pays to planning his own death goes mostly unnoticed by his family, who see in him instead the premonitions of lonely old age: Nick, who stopped returning his parents’ calls and changed his name when he was accepted to Cambridge, has no interest in salving his father’s wounds, but his girlfriend Astrid is determined to do differently, while his brother Dave hopes for the lasting bond neither father nor brother are seeking.
The prickly patriarch brought low by the realization of his own mortality is a trope so familiar, it’s difficult to glimpse here when it’s inverted: Ken is introduced through Nick’s eyes, as the picky, gruff grandfather becomes a panicked middle-of-the-night caller. As some of Ken’s adventures lean toward caricature, including an ill-fated road trip to Wales, his son’s weighing of the measure of his responsibility grounds The Old Romantic in reality: Sensing the collapse of the time since his last conversation with Ken, Nick is yet still acting in the family quarrels that set him free in the first place.
Nor does the reluctant good son escape Dean’s scrutiny: In gleefully puncturing the upper-class padding with which Nick surrounds himself, The Old Romantic doesn’t spare any of the Goodyew clan or their loved ones from barbs, but finds ground on which to gather them without sentimental defenses. Dean doesn’t let a single detail pass without comment, from Matt’s MySpace page to Astrid’s dismay at meeting Nick’s down-at-the-heels college friends, but she lingers on the ways even mortal-minded Ken strains against his first instincts to do right by those who have harmed him deepest. His haphazard quest to find something ultimately worth more than placid old age turns out bittersweet.