Three Strange Angels by Laura Kalpakian

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Reviewed by Victoria.

Quentin Castle, lanky, short-sighted and newly-married, has recently been promoted to junior partner at his father’s literary agency. Everyone knows this is nepotism, especially his father’s other partner, Enid Sherill, who ‘had earned the title, fought for it, threatened to leave him in 1935 unless she was granted a partnership and her name on the letterhead.’ And so Quentin is well aware that the awkward, painful and lowly jobs will all be coming his way. He isn’t surprised and he doesn’t expect better. It’s a bitter, gloomy January in 1950 and London is still in the straitjacket of post-war austerity. The Castles are still coming to terms with the loss, at El Alamein, of Quentin’s older brother Robert, who was of course the lively, handsome, personable son. And so Quentin has done all that might be expected of him to make amends for cruel fate; he has married Florence, the right sort of young woman, entered his father’s firm despite fearing he has no aptitude for the work, and kept his insecurities to himself when told that his first mission is to break the bad news to star cookery writer (and possibly ex-flame of his father’s), Louisa Partridge, that her latest book entitled Apricot, Olive, Lemon has been rejected by her publisher.

But then Castle Agency receives the dreadful news that one of its most respected literary writers, Francis Carson, has died, found drowned in a swimming pool in Hollywood where he had gone to try his luck as a screenwriter. Quentin is dispatched to deepest Oxfordshire to inform the widow and extend the agency’s diplomatic hand of support. Quentin finds Claire Carson living in a dilapidated mansion with her three semi-feral children, abandoned once already by her flighty alcoholic husband but quite unprepared for his death. Claire is a young, beautiful American, more open and responsive than any woman Quentin has met before and over a 24-hour-period of strange intimacy occasioned by bereavement, he becomes completely infatuated with her. Compelled to help her in any way he can, he offers to fly to Los Angeles to bring back Carson’s body, and a suitcase of half-finished manuscripts that Claire insists he took with him.

Of course once in Hollywood, the situation will appear far less transparent. Frank is a bum, there is no suitcase, and Quentin’s chivalrous longing for Claire is troubled by the flirtatious attention he receives from Gigi, the mad-cap daughter of the studio head. What ought to have been a simple mission becomes a crash-course for Quentin in surviving other people’s agendas. But really, it’s the first step in a complete overhaul of the Quentin Castle he thought he was. America is the beginning of the end of Quentin’s naivety and his innocent goodness. It’s an intensive introduction to a brave new world, one that will follow him to London over subsequent decades in which the gentleman’s code of restraint will be replaced by the urge for new sensations. Gigi, Claire Carson and, in her way, cookery writer Louisa Partridge are the three strange angels who will propel Quentin into this new era and the new, artful self that must inhabit it.

There is so much to love about this novel. The atmosphere of London and Hollywood in the 1950s is perfectly conveyed, from the poky, paper-stuffed offices of the literary agency to the overrich opulence of the dinner Quentin is given in L.A., steak and cheesecake and lavish quantities of booze, all unheard of in a country restrained by rationing. The characterisation is just wonderful, from the main, complex characters of Quentin and Claire who we see mature through the years and through their lengthy love affair, to every minor bit-part player who fills the pages. Laura Kalpakian is never better than when wittily summing up a relationship in a few telling lines, for instance the way that Quentin’s father, Albert, is kept in line by his formidable partner, Enid, at the funeral for Francis Carson:

Theirs was a genial profession, and Albert Castle, certainly, was known to be amiable, affable even in these sombre circumstances. Albert became more delightful the more he drank, the more they all drank. Miss Sherill, who drank only sherry, and that in sips, staked herself beside Albert like a pole to a patch of runner beans. Over years of social occasions when Albert waxed indiscreet, Miss Sherill had evolved a quick, almost invisible jab to which he responded like Pavlov’s dog. Her elbow was at the ready as they stood in a small clutch of compatriots and competitors.

Angels stand guard over transformations, and this is a novel about the ways in which much that seems certain and predetermined is subject to extraordinary change. But it’s a novel with a very tender heart, as Quentin’s love for Claire becomes the red banner that flies above the years of compromises, alterations and loss. It’s a love on which he has staked his sense of integrity, no matter what else might happen, and the question is whether he is right or wrong to do so. This is a wonderful novel, sweeping in its vision, delightful in its details, funny, moving and ultimately very romantic in the best sense of exploring the deepest nature of the human heart.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Laura Kalpakian has written an article about her novel in our BookBuzz section here.

Laura Kalpakian, Three Strange Angels (Buried River Press: London, 2015) 978-1910208120, 384 pp., paperback.

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