Today we're reviewing Charles Finch's The Last Enchantments, a lovely, introspective book about an American graduate student who reconciles the transition from the first stage of his life to the future, as he attends graduate school at Oxford.
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published January 28th 2014 by St. Martin's Press
Synopsis via Goodreads:
Will expects nothing more than a year off before resuming the comfortable life he's always known, but he's soon caught up in a whirlwind of unexpected friendships and romantic entanglements that threaten his safe plans. As he explores the heady social world of Oxford, he becomes fast friends with Tom, his snobbish but affable flat mate; Anil, an Indian economist with a deep love for gangster rap; Anneliese, a German historian obsessed with photography; and Timmo, whose chief ambition is to become a reality television star. What he's least prepared for is Sophie, a witty, beautiful and enigmatic woman who makes him question everything he knows about himself.
For readers who made a classic of Richard Yates's A Good School, Charles Finch's The Last Enchantments is a sweeping novel about love and loss that redefines what it means to grow up as an American in the twenty-first century.
When I requested the book, I thought Finch's book would be similar to Bruce Feiler's Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge, a fairly amusing look at Feiler's time at Cambridge in 1990-1991, albeit in a more fictional vein.
Instead, I got a book that was just as amusing at times, but far more thoughtful and introspective. Finch introduces us to Will, an American political operative who's felt at a loss ever since losing John Kerry's campaign. He decides (with reluctant agreement from his fiancé) to do a one-year graduate program at Oxford, with the belief that it will help him find his way back into the thick of things.
But after arriving at the historic university, Will's life is turned upside down. He meets a group of fellow students, including both members of the British elite and another working-class American, who make him question every step he's taken in his life, and where he plans to go next.
Finch effortlessly integrates the reader into the hallowed world of Oxbridge, both pointing out the absurdity of some age-old customs - being egged after turning in your final paper, anyone? - while also deftly showing why people, especially Yanks, continue to strive to be a part of this elitist but attractive world. As someone who also followed a path similar to Will's, including attending graduate school at a British university, I thought Finch's balance of the attraction and the absurd was perfect.
I think that readers will both alternately sympathize and be frustrated with Will, as he struggles to figure out what he wants to do with his life now that he's been a part of Kerry's losing presidential campaign (a.k.a. losing the biggest campaign of your life), and whether or not his original plan of engagement, marriage and more politics is truly he way for him. Will's genuine interest in his work, coupled with his growing recognition that yes, the first quarter of his life (and his youth) are now truly over, are all issue that any reader, young or old, can both recognize - even as he embarks on an affair that may make or break him.
Finch also manages to round out Will's world with a diverse cast of characters who are all struggling to move into the second phase of adulthood in their own waves, and I know that readers will likely see a little bit of themselves in Tom, Sophie and the rest of the friends.
Things to consider:
I'll be honest: I was in complete agreement with those reviews at first. The characters are pretty terrible to each other throughout the course of the book, with many of them doing things that would break friendships and end relationships in real life.
However, after taking a few days to think about it, I actually think that Finch perfectly and in many ways, beautifully captures that sense of restlessness that people feel when they're finally about to leave behind young adulthood, and traverse into the responsibilities of serious adulthood for the first time.
There's that sense of panic and desperation to capture every last minute of the carelessness of teenage and young adult years possible, so it makes sense that people would act out and behave in ways that are generally kind of terrible. I should know - even though I probably shouldn't admit this, I did see this a lot during my own year abroad at my British graduate school.
So I would argue that while yes, a lot of these characters do behave in terrible ways, we as the reader, cringe not because we don't like their behavior, but because we recognize it.
This a book that will entertain you, make you think and possibly make you recognize a part of yourself that didn't exist - for better, or for worse. Charles Finch's writing and his characters managed to resonate with me on an emotional level, in a way that I haven't felt in awhile.
I recommend this book for fans of contemporary fiction, especially for fans who like reading stories with flawed heroes that remind them a little bit of themselves. Will isn't the perfect hero, but he's the right hero, especially for this generation.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of The Last Enchantments from St. Martin's Press, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!