Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield’s wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist’s voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrissing shadow over his career and respectable image. Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best.
The more I reflect on this novel, the less I feel I have to say about it. It’s one of those books I admire because, to some degree, it doesn’t have a plot, and I am always a bit impressed when authors can just write about someone’s life without there being some main guiding point to the book. Here, the glue that holds it all together is just the narrator’s reflections on an author who just died and that author’s first wife, whom he and many others had an affair with. It’s just…a story about how the narrator met and knew these people. At times it’s interesting, but I can’t say I came away feeling much about it.
The most memorable parts of the book, for me, are not that the narrator was having an affair and not that the first wife was apparently vivacious and exciting in addition to being promiscuous. Instead, my attention was caught by random small details–the setting of the scenes rather than the plot. This a rare book where I felt like I actually could pop right into the time period of the past and have a sense of what it was like to live then. For instance, the narrator muses on how when he was a child, bicycles were rare, so when you saw someone on one, you stopped what you were doing, turned your head, and watched him ride until he was gone into the distance. That has nothing much to do with the story (except that the author and his wife helped teach the narrator to ride a bike of his own), but it did make me feel like the setting was coming alive and like the narrator was a real person.
Otherwise, I can’t say I immensely enjoyed Cakes and Ale. It’s a bit sarcastic; the narrator doesn’t seem to have a fond opinion of anyone except the woman he had an affair with, and he characterizes authors as insincere charlatans, most of whom don’t have actual talent backing up their success. (Though his observation that the surest way to authorial fame is knowing the right people and coming from privilege will likely ring true to many today.) There are some reflections on art and literature in general, such as what the nature of beauty is, but I guess I didn’t think the narrator quite as clever as he seems to think himself.
The book is short and…fine, I guess, but I find myself with little to say about it, whether about plot, characters, or even general philosophy, so I wouldn’t exactly recommend it to others.