Jacobson’s turgid eighth outing tells you more than you ever wanted to know about the life of a retired university lecturer.
Henry Nagel, pushing 60, has recently moved to a posh London neighborhood after a lifetime in the North of England. He has come into possession of a fancy apartment, which, he speculates, belonged to his father’s mistress, both now deceased. A timid soul, Henry is preparing for death without having lived a life, and Jacobson walks us through some big moments in Henry’s story, starting with his birth on Christmas Day in a Manchester nursing-home. We squirm with Henry as he gets into trouble for not bringing home the change from the grocery store and wince with Henry as a schoolboy when someone calls him a girl (oh, Jacobson loves the name “Henry” to death). Not that Henry had a hard childhood: He was cosseted by his doting Jewish parents. If Henry grew up afraid of his own shadow, it wasn’t the fault of his father, Izzi, a magician and fire-eater who believed in fun times. And his great-aunt Marghanita embodied “the unutterable voluptuousness of family.” Though Henry loved having women in his life, he couldn’t handle the responsibility of a relationship, so he “borrowed” the wives of colleagues at his obscure university, where his career never took off (we get some feeble satirical swipes at “radical feminists”). Finally, in London, he meets Moira, the lively owner of a local patisserie, who gets Henry to lighten up. Might he be ready for the first-ever mature relationship? Can life begin at 60? Will Jacobson (The Very Model of a Man, 1994, etc.) deliver the goods? Well, no, he’ll leave us hanging. Answers are delayed as Henry discovers it was his mother, not his father, who had the secret life, plunging him into another round of speculation about the past. All this, and walking the neighbor’s dog (a major production), elbows out his romance with Moira.