Sometimes the zeitgeist can be a dangerous thing. Kate Christensen’s first novel, In the Drink, arrived in the wake of Bridget Jones’s Diary and suffered the ignominious fate of being roped in with the then burgeoning subgenre of “chick lit.” Since then, Christensen has worked impressively hard to avoid this damning label. Her next novel, Jeremy Thrane, revolved around a gay male protagonist, and her latest, The Epicure’s Lament, features a tasty misanthropist who answers to the name Hugo Whittier. It took me many pages to appreciate this lecherous, pompous figure—but Hugo is so excessively hateful that I can’t help liking him.
The Epicure’s Lament is laid out as Hugo’s diary (take that, Bridget!), but there’s no calorie counting or mooning over boys here. A recluse in his family’s dilapidated upstate New York mansion, Hugo reeks of decadence and cruelty. He spends his days flirting with au pairs and married female neighbors—that is, when he’s not obsessing over culinary guru M.F.K. Fisher (“that uppity little slyboots of a voluptuary autodidact”) or cautiously picking through soiled memories. Of his love life he writes, “I imagine I may have behaved like something of an asshole, but I moved around too frequently ever to fall into any black holes of consequence.”
Yet he is eventually faced with a different kind of consequence: Hugo has a rare disease that will soon kill him if he doesn’t quit chain-smoking. And so he puffs away, eagerly courting death and solitude, until his deathwatch is interrupted by a succession of relatives—his brother, estranged wife (a “jolie laide sans merci“), daughter Bellatrix, and “fag uncle Tommy.” In a final reckoning, these characters add up to little more than stick figures, yet all are crisply drawn and amusingly eccentric, the perfect cast for this sybaritic romp.