Lasdun’s cautionary tale takes place in the summer, at the country home of Charlie and Chloe in Upstate New York. Charlie has extended an invitation to his cousin Matthew, a chef currently at odds with the direction of his life. Both men are British expats, Charlie a successful investment banker enjoying the fruits of his success, Matthew pleased to offer his services as chef whenever needed, gratefully accepting temporary residence in the guesthouse. The small town where they decamp is lush, rich with diversions, an assortment of restaurants, trendy shops, a group of quasi-hippies enjoying nature’s bounty, enhanced by an assortment of recreational drugs, the occasional clamor of Occupy
protests intruding into lazy discussions around the swimming pool on a late afternoon. There is much to enjoy in this particular utopia, though also a pervasive aura of claustrophobia as Matthew’s presence fills the corners of his cousin’s home, a near-outsider absorbing the nuances of privilege, silent watcher gathering bits of information, imagining an intimacy that is never really his, only its proximity.
Amid the understated opulence of the beautifully appointed summer home, days spent in sun-drenched comfort and nights crowned by epicurean feasts, Charlie, Chloe, and Matthew move languidly, indulging their particular interests. Charlie puts together a business deal, Chloe attends a yoga class, Matt accommodates everyone’s needs.
There is an emptiness despite the elegant appointments, an open space filled only with Matthew’s musings on his place in the tableau, resident of the guesthouse, chef when needed, observer of the couple’s interactions, their comfort with entitlement. The airy rooms belie habitation, lacking the cohesiveness of tender affection or impetuous laughter. There is, after all, an uneven number residing together, a couple and an odd houseguest--an intruder, in fact. Matthew believes he has a personal relationship with each: Charlie, with whom he shares an uncomfortable family history,
and the perfect Chloe, who he secretly imagines as his own. Like a feral cat, Matthew lies in wait, gobbling any scrap of togetherness or camaraderie, his need insatiable. Assuming invisibility, he tosses out casual remarks
and questions, treading carefully to maintain the correct decorum demanded of the situation.
The plot becomes vaguely sinister. Matthew’s presence grows more pervasive. His curiosity unearths a secret, a touch of scandal that confuses, then amuses him--to tell or not to tell, the breathless indecision as obsession grows, an inability to resist the urge to know, the power of such delicious knowledge. While modern-day concerns infiltrate this privileged oasis on occasion, a lack of routine produces a surfeit of opportunity as Matthew enjoys random excursions, later dissecting the behaviors of his hosts, whether fanciful or based on overheard conversations. Blindingly egocentric, Matt disguises his curiosity, the constant weighing of favor or disfavor, lurking in the background, calibrating both Charlie’s and Chloe’s state of mind.
Though the prose is clean and fresh, none of the characters are particularly memorable, Matthew only for the depth of his pathology and impulsive actions. A bit like the infamous protagonist of
The Talented Mr. Ripley, Matthew has none of that character’s charm. Instead, his casual curiosity grows covetous, intemperate, ever near discovery. After the lethargy of those lengthy summer days, the climax is jarring, abrupt, without the subtle calculations of the rest of the novel, as startling as the slamming of a door from a gust of wind.