I really enjoyed Julian Fellowes’ Snobs, though it was something of a guilty pleasure. (Slavish American anglophilia: just not that attractive.) Past Imperfect puzzled me, though. It’s another visit to upper reaches of English society, but this time it shuttles back and forth between present and past. Our narrator, unnamed (any particular reason for this?), is contacted by an old enemy who is dying. He is charged with a mission that will require him to look up a group of women who were all debutantes in the London season of 1968. Because of the dreadful doings at that fateful evening in Estoril in 1970, he has seen none of them since then, so this is a voyage back to the past.
One by one, the narrator picks them off, visiting these women he had known as girls to ask them some very personal questions. He is clearly deeply preoccupied by the puzzling way the past intersects with the present, especially for a group of people (the upper class) whose way of life was anachronistic, even forty years ago. I hope the narrator is not identical with the author, because there’s a lot of dyspeptic complaint about the present day: public drunkenness, cacophonous music, the incivility of the young. Thing is, I could never be sure. The book is billed as a satire but only one scene (involving some frozen strawberries) was actually funny.
In his favor, the narrator does ruefully soften his youthful judgments of many of the people he did the Season with as a young man, and he justifiably regrets his own profound, reflexive snobbishness. But this all seems pretty simplistic. And Fellowes, who after all has written some pretty good screenplays, draws some formless characters. Lady Serena Gresham, the love interest, never seems like more than an agglomeration of pleasant attributes like beauty, money, high rank and a faintly mysterious manner.
From time to time an episode (like a disastrous party held at Madame Tussaud’s) snaps into sharper focus but most of them feel less than fully imagined. And the payoff, the dreadful night in Portugal that severed the narrator from his friends, is a complete anticlimax. Worst, Fellowes’s style is to interrupt action and dialogue for long paragraphs of the narrator’s reaction or opinion. The ratio of telling to showing is way off. Clearly this is not a Law of Fiction but if you’re aiming for readability, it sure helps.