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Having left the army after an incident in Afghanistan in which several civilians were killed, Hector Chetwode-Talbot (known to his friends as Eck) drifts into a job working for an investment company in the city; he's not a financial expert, in fact he knows next to nothing about what his company does but he does know lots of wealthy people who tend not to ask many questions when looking for somewhere to invest their money. Eck's job is to wine and dine these acquaintances and persuade them to invest in the company's Styx Fund. Out of the blue, Eck's unspeakably awful boss, the arrogant Bilbo Fitzwilliam, tells Eck to entertain Mr Aseeb, a mind-bogglingly wealthy Afghan who the company hopes will give the company the money they need to start investing in sub prime debt; this, they reckon, will rocket the company into the major league.
Increasingly uncomfortable in this unscrupulous industry, Eck starts to wonder what a different life would be like. In particular he thinks about Harriet, his second cousin, who lives in France and has become increasingly reclusive since the death in action of her fiancé Bob, who also fought in Afghanistan. Harriet doesn't exactly discourage Eck but neither does she give him any particular hope that they might have a future together. As the economy starts to look distinctly unstable, Eck realizes he is completely out of his depth.
Charlie Summer of the book's title is, for the most part, really an extra in the story although it's pretty easy to work out early on how he will make an impact by the end of the novel. Like Eck and his old school friend, Henry Stanton, Charlie is one of those characters that Paul Torday excels in creating; middle aged, basically dull but hugely likeable men. Eck and Henry make Charlie's acquaintance while holidaying in France and, too polite to do otherwise, they invite him to join them for dinner. Charlie tells them that he's a businessman and that he's involved in a scheme to introduce a new Japanese dog food to the European markets. As they part company Henry suggests - never thinking it might actually happen - that Charlie drop in if he's ever in Wiltshire. When next the men's paths cross, Charlie is a self-titled 'dog nutritionalist' befriending every dog owner in the south of England. The trouble is Charlie's businesses always run out of steam and usually sooner rather than later. As Charlie wanders here and there leaving a trail of destruction in his wake, Eck realises that perhaps the two men aren't so different after all, which makes Charlie's final actions even more poignant.
Eck is the story's narrator and it's a role that suits him; he's jolly and affable and fair. His commentary keeps the story moving nicely but it is flawed slightly in that he's an omniscient narrator and the circumstances that allow him this viewpoint are contrived. The entire story is very predictable in fact but this doesn't mean it's not highly entertaining and enjoyable. Torday writes about contemporary issues yet his novels have an old fashioned feel to them that make them a really comforting read.
There's plenty to think about yet the subject matter isn't too heavy or challenging; there are distinctly dark moments which I particularly relished because they work so well against the generally mild storyline. (This novel in particular reminded me of Compton Mackenzie's "Monarch of the Glen" stories dramatised by the BBC, with their 'olde worldliness", comical characters and occasionally sinister undertone).
"The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers" looks at what we need to make us happy in life. Setting it against the backdrop of the economic downturn is a brilliant idea and I even learned some stuff I didn't know before. While it has moments of sadness, it's not a sentimental read and does make some incisive comments about the world of finance and the people who populate it.
I've read all of Torday's novels now and this one is definitely a return to form after the slight disappointment of "The Girl on the Landing". I'm pretty certain that readers who are already familiar with Paul Torday will enjoy his latest novel and that newcomers will be tempted to read his previous ones.