ONCE A GENTLEMAN by Donald James


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An entertaining if slightly overstuffed novel of cut-adrift Europeans between the Wars, from the author of The Fall of the Russian Empire (1982). In 1914, Claus von Hardenberg, illegitimate son of an impoverished German noblewoman and a now-dead British charmer, is being treated to a Cambridge education by dad's family, the aristocratic Winslows. It's all champagne, boyish mischief and a thrilling affair with the much-older Lady Margaret Ryder, until Claus meets his breathtaking younger cousin, Diana, and loses his heart. But WW I brews and Claus hurries home to fight for Germany. He gets love-soaked letters from Diana, until, abruptly, she stops writing and Claus finds out that she's engaged to an outrageously rich American. Claus, now a pilot, is sent to East Africa, where he meets Catherine Esterhazy, a lonely European farmer who becomes his true friend. When Germany's defeated, Claus returns to abject poverty until his cousin Buzz Winslow sends him a fat check and invites him to Diana's wedding. There, she reveals that she broke with him because she's not his cousin but his half-sister. Buzz and his champagne-and-cocaine gang of college pals move to Kenya for an extended house party, while Diana becomes particular chums with a young captain Goring and other rising stars in Germany's new Nazi party. Catherine, impoverished and ill, kills herself and leaves her farm to Claus. He returns to Kenya to find Buzz spouting an obnoxious Nazi line. Diana participates in a plane race into Africa, and soon revelations are flying fast and thick. A bit too richly detailed, perhaps, with the sex-and-drugs high jinks of the empty upper classes. But Claus' coming of age is engaging, and the strange shifting mess of loyalties and betrayals keeps the pages turning.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1987
Publisher: Crown