The Old Romantic begins with a Christmas roast dinner
shared by Ken and his sons, Nick and Dave. Both sons have lost touch with their father over the years but have decided, however reluctantly, to join him at Dave’s family home. Although persuaded by Astrid, his partner, Nick is reluctant to attend. Everything about this reunion feels taut and uncomfortable, from Ken’s crude, bitter working-class insults to the organized chaos of the dinner itself to their father’s unexpected request to make peace with his past.
Ken is hiding the real reason his sons have been summoned.
He is leaving everything to Dave, but he also wants a divorce from his second wife, June, and he wants Nick to do all the paperwork. Fed up with the raging, ranting, and haranguing (“I’m your father and what’s in me is in you”), Nick to storms out of the house in shock, never
having expected that he would still be so susceptible to Ken’s cruel and sarcastic taunts.
Despite Astrid’s calming ministrations, Nick, a gifted private school-educated solicitor, is determined to wash his hands of the family once and for all.
He decides that a holiday in Sicily will be a good opportunity to take a break from this whole business with his father. As Nick and Astrid seek to escape from the shame that Nick can
neither face nor share, Ken and June prepare to “go straight to crap,” the seething resentment degenerating into name-calling and reckless ultimatums.
Over the years, June has developed an equally embittered temperament, positioning herself as hater of men and lambasting Ken for his chauvinism. She walks out on Ken when she discovers that he has a crush on Audrey, the buxom manager of the local funeral parlor. As the years begin to weigh heavily on Ken, “forming diamond inside of him,” the progress of his declining health is making its inevitable mark.
Affecting gaunt melancholy, Ken's damaged and vulnerable voice echoes most throughout Dean’s bittersweet tale. From thrilling promises of adulthood to the terrible sadness of domestic cruelty, the author balances infant family life against the inevitable cracks of marriage.
While Dave had to fight for love, Nick was the golden boy and the one who got the scholarship as the years come floating back for both men.
The writing is mostly dialogue-driven, fueling a plot that centers on a dark family secret and Nick’s memories of a betrayal forever etched in his mind. Although the novel stalls a bit towards the end and Ken becomes irritating in all of his raging glory, Dean does a fine job of instilling her characters in the surrounds of Hastings, where the seasons change each day and the world seems to turn too fast.
Ken is the officious, cruel patriarch to the last, proving a formidable threat to everyone’s happiness. Still, as he and Nick face marriage and divorce and death, the family shows a surprising capacity to heal. Filled with humor, energy and vibrancy, issues of class are central as Dean’s colorful mesh of domestic affairs becomes increasingly more complicated.