William Boyd’s The Blue Afternoon was another of those random books I picked up at Half Price Books. (BTW, “random books” are books that I just pick up out of the blue at discount and used book stores. They key is that they must be books you have never heard of and that you pick out based on nothing more than the cover and dust jacket information. Cheap entertainment these days!)
It peaked my interest because the bulk of the story is told in a flashback. The story starts in 1930′s Hollywood but soon flashes back to Turn of the Century Philippines. The plot centers around Kay Fischer, a young architect in California trying to put her life back together after a divorce and a business relationship that turned ugly. Kay soon runs into a man, Salvador Carriscant, claiming to be her father who convinces her to accompany him to Lisbon to search for the lost love of his life. On the way he begins to recall the story of his life in the Philippines three decades earlier. At this point the story switches perspective, from Kay being the focus and the narrator to Salvador telling the story.
Boyd does a great job pulling you into the story and keeping you interested. There always seems to be a new twist at just the right moment to keep the momentum going. He reveals his characters slowly as events unfold. They are complex, yet mysterious. The intriguing and exotic locales give the story a sense of romance and mystery as well.
The plot could very easily have devolved into a sappy romance or a cheap mystery but Boyd avoids that pitfall with skilful writing. The character are melancholy without being sappy. The plot twists are exciting without being fantastic. He uses the vocational (medicine, architecture, aeronautics, etc.) and the geographical (California, Philippines, Spain) background to keep the story real. In that sense parts of it read like a historical mystery. The descriptions of time and place seem real and therefore fascinating. The detail and accuracy of the characterizations and in the setting set this book apart from a dime story romance.
But at root this book is about love and about passion. It is about what drives people to do outrageous things; what makes people’s lives unique. The book’s pace is set by the tension of what is real and what is possible. We want to believe in the impossible but we are often deeply cynical. We want to think we would risk everything for love or desire but we often choose the comfortable route instead. The moral of this story is corny but true: it is better to have loved deeply and have lost than not to have loved at all.
I wouldn’t normally view this as “my kind of book.” I am not into romance novels by any means. But this book has adventure, history, mystery, and yes romance, all mixed together to form an interesting and entertaining mix. If you are looking for something different to read, perhaps a little escapism, pick this up at your local library. I am glad I grabbed this particular random book.