'The Love She Left Behind' is a finely drawn, dark comedy of manners, class

The death of a matriarch sets in motion this acerbic British comedy from an acclaimed London screenwriter.

The Love She Left Behind Amanda Coe W. W. Norton & Company 256 pp.

At the center of The Love She Left Behind, Amanda Coe’s witty, exuberantly uncharitable second novel, is Patrick Conway, a raging old playwright who lives in a grand house in Cornwall. He bought the place with the proceeds of his 1980s theatrical triumph, "Bloody Empire," acclaimed as a satire on the Falklands War, then just beginning.

Sharing the novel’s center, though absent, is Patrick’s wife, Sara, who has just died. She had abandoned her first husband and two children for the playwright over 30 years ago; now the grown son and daughter have arrived to take Patrick to the crematorium to see their mother off. They also have an interest in examining the house: dilapidated, filthy, kippered with cigarette smoke, and presenting a scene of whiskey bottles “serried in rows ... a display of historic consumption as formally impressive as an art installation or a tomb offering from an ancient civilization.” Depending on how matters of inheritance stand, the place may or may not have become legally theirs.

Nigel, the eldest, is a lawyer and martyr to hay fever and digestive strife. He is married to an upscale, efficient wife with whom he has two sons. We meet him as he meets his sister, Louise, and her sulking teenage daughter, Holly, getting off the train from Leeds to attend the funeral. Overweight and inadequate, with “pilled coat and misjudged cleavage,” Louise irritates Nigel as usual: “Soon she would be talking up a plan born of a low-level but persistent crisis: training, relocating, paying off a loan, finishing with her boyfriend, losing weight. None of it ever happened.”

This unmerry band picks Patrick up from his house, and we are treated to a first dose of the playwright’s stupendously foul character, a toxic blend of selfishness, disdain, and meticulous cruelty. His manner is especially vile toward the hapless Louise and her unlovely daughter.

As in every English novel I have ever read, social class lies at the bottom of this one. Sara (whose given name, Sally, so offended Patrick’s fine sensibilities that he called her Sara instead) sprang from the working class and was a shop assistant when Patrick walked into her life. Smitten with him though she was, and despite Patrick’s impassioned pleas, she at first refused to leave her husband and children, in part, it emerges, because her husband promised her a remodeled kitchen if she stayed.

When she did later leave – the immediate reason being a shabby one that you will have to discover yourself – the result was her social elevation, and Nigel’s, too – he was sent to a good private boarding school at Patrick’s expense, after which he attended Oxford and entered the law. Poor, fat, insecure Louise was palmed off on her Auntie B. and grew up in cultural and material deprivation. Everything about Louise and her children spells underclass woe: 14-year-old Holly, a no-hoper in the making, is moonstruck under the thrall of a 30-year-old “boy” friend with a snazzy car, while her brother, Jamie, who eventually shows up, is upholstered in tattoos, sports an earlobe plug, and is signing on to the military for lack of any other idea about his future.

Meanwhile, another character has been at large in the novel. This is Mia; brand conscious, culturally ignorant, and mildly opportunistic, she is a young graduate student who is writing her thesis on “controversy as media commodity.” She came across the Falklands War during a Googling session and from there to Patrick’s "Bloody Empire." She ends up staying with Patrick and terrifying Nigel and Louise with the prospect of her marrying the ancient playwright.

I cannot reveal what happens on that front except to say that, in a wonderful comic touch, another remodeled kitchen plays a role. Indeed, Mia is at the heart of the book’s most entertaining scenes, not least among them a dinner out with Patrick and two old thespian friends from his heyday, Dodie and Lucas. The three elderly people have been drinking steadily for hours before arriving at the restaurant:

"Did old people really speak more loudly because they were deaf, Mia wondered, or just because they had the kind of voices no one had anymore? Dodie had imparted early on in her monologue that she had trained as an actress in the 1960s.

'Julie Christie was in my year at RADA.'

Mia hadn’t asked her who Julie Christie was. She could look it up later.

Lucas ignored the menu being placed in front of him and button-holed the waiter for a bottle of house red. Dodie, once she had retrieved her reading glasses from the chain where they rested on her mounded bosom, compensated by taking beady interest in her own menu’s contents. She read most of it aloud, relishing a couple of spelling mistakes and deploring a comprehensive lack of accents and circumflexes."

That’s only the beginning.

A few letters, notes, and other incunabula from the past written by Patrick and Sara show up throughout the book. Each serves as an exhibit of its creator’s unfortunate character. Patrick’s contributions display his thoroughgoing self-centeredness as he lectures Sara on the need for sacrifices – by which he does not mean his.

His letters also show his delusion about the merit of his play, his one and only success. Mighty with outraged artistic integrity, he writes letters to newspapers and his agent, protesting against the suggestion that his play is a satire on the Falklands War. It isn’t, he insists, “never has been and never will.” On the other hand, though it is an offense against his “artistic conscience,” he does allow the production to move to the (lucrative) West End. If only his reluctance were sham – but no. As the novel moves on, we better understand the true nature of that decision, with sinking hearts, and the comic awfulness of Patrick begins to metamorphose into pathos.

An excerpt from "Bloody Empire" shows exactly how much the play’s success must have lain outside itself, and that sad fact is only one of the distressing revelations to emerge, one by one, in this novel. Evidence, all too terribly credible, of past misapprehension and mishandled lives proliferates as the story progresses.

What, at first, seemed purely a high-spirited social comedy darkens up and becomes genuinely heartbreaking. It is more than a little disconcerting, as the two moods are not really integrated but operate independently of each other. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, most of all for the characters and all their little ways so perfectly and acerbically rendered.

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