I go through phases in reading books. At the moment I am reading about my favorite period in history: between the wars and the glittering generation that changed the way we think about living. Thought-provoking stuff.
David Desmond’s Misadventures of Oliver Booth: Life in the Lap of Luxury was purported to be a comic novel — a ‘Voltaire-esque’ misadventure on top of that — and I just wasn’t convinced that I wanted to read it, especially for review. ‘Dying is easy,’ someone once said, ‘comedy is hard.’
Let’s get this out in the open: it is funny, with Rabelaisian moments, even. It is also a comic novel for our times. Especially when we read of the alleged fraud perpetrated by London antiques dealer John Hobbs, and the nightly escapades of ‘celebutantes’ famous for being … famous.
The Misadventures of Oliver Booth is a novel about shortcuts. The protagonist Booth is a social climber clinging to the side of a building just off the wealthier shopping thoroughfare of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach, Florida. Worthless, in every sense of the word. He longs to belong to the set that decorates the better houses in Palm Beach, but his ‘antique shop’ is filled with cheaply made ‘reproductions of classic French designs.’ He is a horrible employer, grotesque in appetite and deportment, and not much of a decent person in general. If he didn’t have bad taste, as the saying goes, he wouldn’t have any taste at all. No one would enter his shop without stumbling into it or bother to take a second glance at the inventory if he did.
Fortunately for Booth, that is exactly what happens as he makes the acquaintance of the grandson of one of the doyennes of Palm Beach society who sends Booth and a French waiter with a good eye to Paris to outfit her guest house. Booth hopes to get rich quick, not really knowing his antiques (although he subscribes to all the magazines,) not speaking the language and not willing to listen. His newly-minted colleague Bernard Dauphin (the French word for the heir apparent to the throne…) is destined to make good. And he does it by being honest, hard-working, and French. Yes, he has a good eye, but he also advances largely through being in the right place at the right time.
And why not? The American motto may be e pluribus unum but I bet I could make a strong case for carpe diem in this land of opportunity. Since we’re on the subject of Latin phrases, I leave you with one more: caveat emptor, ‘let the buyer beware;’ you may get sucked into reading and not want to stop. Or you may recognize yourself in one of the composite caricatures.
No one escapes Mr. Desmond’s satiric gaze and that is what makes for a fun romp. Even the glimpses that we catch of Palm Beach society don’t really make you long for inclusion in the social clubs so much as for the kind of money that lets you go on buying trips to Paris to furnish your guest house. At any rate, Mr. Desmond has written and published a novel that gives us a café table view of a certain segment of society that always intrigues us.
Tough times sometimes call for light measures … this is a book that can make you smile.
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