At the core of Louise Dean's fourth novel is a deliciously dysfunctional English family. Lawyer Nick hasn't seen his working-class father, Ken, in 15 years, and with good reason: Nasty, greedy and vain, the old man in turn belittles his son and paws at him with a sentimental "we're blood, you and me."
Nick's the prodigal son who, feeling martyred and misunderstood, fled the old man for a fancy London law degree but at 40 still feels the need to "use erudition to bolster himself." He's also turned his back on his mother, Pearl, who lives in crude, mannish, witch-like solitude in the old family lodge.
It's compelling territory, to be sure. Fans of Jonathan Franzen know that families are crucibles for big questions, namely: What does it mean for the self to love and commit to another? And how do the boundaries get drawn, and redrawn?
Sometimes the insights Dean arrives at are bland, like Nick musing that true love means "a fear of loss; and the risk of becoming ordinary." But more often they are dazzling, like when Nick's girlfriend Astrid, as beautiful as she is beauty-obsessed, slaps a defenseless old flame of Nick's and declares that she's "sick of being good." Or when death-infatuated Ken, volunteering at a funeral home, stands dumbstruck as a body is being drained for embalming, the "blood hitting the sides of the jar like scarlet fireworks." Characters rake themselves through self-revelations, and the prose leaps with a fervor for the present moment.
Unfortunately, the novel conflates with such moments, robbing them of power, and one begins to feel that Dean isn't really developing her characters so much as choreographing them through forced revelations, irrelevant side stories and fruitless, incredulous dialogue. Imagine, for instance, old Ken and Astrid in a pseudo-feminist discussion about why women cry, or the atheistic undertaker ranting on "this god of ours."
In this way the book meanders and never really commits to an emotional center, or even a plot beyond the "will he or won't he" of Ken's death obsession.
Which is sad, because ultimately "The Old Romantic" is a story of familial reunion, specifically Pearl and Ken's. But when we find that out, it's just too late to really feel it, and not even Dean's brilliant domestic eye -- which she employed so magically in her previous work -- can redeem it.
But if you enjoy eavesdropping as family members batter each other into new geometries of love -- to some occasionally transcendent results -- this novel might be for you.
Scott Muskin is the author of "The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama's Boy and Scholar." He lives in Minneapolis.