Another novel by E.M. Delafield read and I'm happy to see that I have many, many more ahead of me to explore. Sadly not many of them are readily available, though a number can be read free online, and the Provincial Lady novels seem to still be in print, and don't forget to see which titles are on your library's bookshelves as that is where I found this copy of Gay Life. One of forty books (I think she wrote 29 novels) by Delafield, it was published in 1933. I must warn you that the Wikipedia description of this is not entirely correct.
"set in the Cote d'Azur, Hilary and Angie Moon have to live on their wits and her beauty"
This first brought to mind Edith Warton's Glimpses of the Moon, which I read several years ago. Hilary and Angie Moon are only two of a rather large cast of characters that Delafield writes about. Like Glimpses of the Moon there are romantic misadventures in this novel, but the tone isn't exactly comic, much more satirical and even a little tragic. It's quite a different side of the author than I saw in Diary of a Provincial Lady, but after reading Thank Heaven Fasting I see that there is much more to this author than light-hearted humor. I picked this one up after Thank Heaven Fasting, and it could easily be one of my Lost in the Stacks books (it was often checked out from 1947 all the way to 1993 according to the due date slip), which I am accumulating at an alarming rate. I wasn't sure I would read it until Simon at Stuck in a Book asked if I'd like to read it in tandem (notice his signed copy!). Do read his thoughts on Gay Life as well.
A hotel on the coast of the French Riviera serves as the backdrop to this story, which examines the lives and relationships of the various guests over the course of several weeks during a typical summer. Delafield peels the layers of the characters' personalities back revealing all their quirks and foibles, though to be honest there is probably far more nastiness to be seen than anything else. One character, who is a regular visitor, comments that the faces may change but the "type" rarely varies.
"The place is beautiful enough. I wouldn't get tired of that. But it's just seeing the same crowd of people, over and over again, with nothing different about them except their names."
This is a story where not much happens, yet is compulsively readable because the characters are so interesting, even if they are very flawed (though maybe that's why they were so interesting). A few were sympathetic, a few made me grimace and one or two even made me snigger, but I thought they created a wonderful drama of sorts.
Since the Wikipedia mentions Hilary and Angie Moon, let me start with them. They are a most dissolute couple, your basic hangers-on who rely on the good fortunes of others to carry them along. Neither are especially nice and the hotel matron is understandably wary of them and their potential to flee in the middle of the night in order to avoid paying their bill. They leech on to others for food and drink and mostly get away with it. And they are almost constantly at each other's throats. Angie's very beautiful and she uses her charm and sex appeal to the best of her abilities, as she has since she was a very young woman. As a matter of fact she has her eye set on Buckland, the resident gigolo. Buck is cocky and self-assured and in the employ of the older, and just past her prime, Coral Romayne. He's meant to be the tutor of Coral's son, Patrick, but seems to spend most of his time socializing and driving her Buick about. Poor Patrick, he's shuttled between parents who no longer live together. Despite her numerous affairs Patrick has an obvious fondness for his mother and hungers for her approval. Unfortunately she is wrapped up in own affairs (literally and figuratively).
"Naturally lacking in discrimination, Coral allowed herself to be exploited by men and women to whom dancing, drinking, love-making and the spending of other people's money, were the principal occupations of life. She speedily surrendered to their standards, becoming more strident and noisier than themselves in an endeavor to focus upon herself the attention that was less and less offered to her spontaneously."
Coral lusts after Buckland who lusts after Angie Moon. Coral is not the only character feeling her age, however. Mary Morgan is my favorite character--the most likable and balanced. This trip is her one chance to see a bit of the world thanks to a small financial windfall that allows the family to go away somewhere exotic. Mary's three children display good breeding and good sense, much like their mother. Her marriage appears stale and mundane and my heart wrenched for her when her husband assures her she was naturally frigid, and "that most decent women were the same" (it's never the husband's fault it seems).
"After her children were born, it made Mary intensely happy to see them in the surroundings that her own childhood had known. She sought to recover, through them, the past. Although her youth was gone, she still, to a large extent, lived in it, protecting herself from the full pain of disillusionment."
For the Morgan family, good breeding is inherent. For Denis Waller the appearance of refinement and good breeding is all a pose. Denis Waller is the secretary to a British businessman who despises him. I really wanted to feel sympathetic towards Denis, but he was such a maddening man--always playing the martyr and so self-conscious that it was painful to see him interact with the other hotel guests, for whom he was often the butt of their jokes and jibes. He tried so hard to be something he obviously wasn't and was never willing to reveal his true side to the one person to take an interest in him. Chrissie Challoner is a successful writer, Bohemian in lifestyle and open in her relationships yet it's hard to know what her motivations are. Is she really attracted to Denis or does he only serve as literary inspiration?
Nothing much may happen--visits to the beach or side trips to Cannes, dinner and drinks and lots and lots of conversation, yet the story moves along swiftly. I've only mentioned some of the most important characters, but even her secondary ones are interesting enough. She moves from one to the other very seamlessly and fills in their histories, so you understand just how they've ended up where they are.
From what I understand this is one of Delafield's lesser works, which doesn't surprise me as it didn't merit mention in two different reference guides I checked. I've not yet read widely enough to compare, but both The Diary of the Provincial Lady and Thank Heaven Fasting were both excellent books. Gay Life doesn't quite reach the comic wit of the PL or the stinging bite of Thank Heaven Fasting, though it's very, very good in its own right and certainly has its wise moments. As character studies go, I was impressed. If this isn't the best, I have lots more to look forward to it seems. I have The War Workers on my library pile, though I'm a little worried about reading it. It was published in 1918 and my copy is pretty fragile. Maybe I'll have to load an ebook of this into my Nook? In any case I will certainly be reading more of E.M. Delafield's books in the future. And thanks to Simon T. for the gentle push to read this, as it was time well spent.