For her fifth novel, the British author offers a seductive snapshot of Noël Coward, that consummate man of the theater.
Most of the action occurs during one week in 1971. The recently knighted Sir Noël is living in his tiny hilltop retreat in Jamaica, the eponymous Firefly, above his much larger, bustling home below. He divides his time between there and Switzerland, avoiding England for tax reasons. The great man is in poor health, suffering dizzy spells and leading a sedentary life (he will die two years later, at age 73). Down the hill, his unobtrusive partner, Graham Payn, takes care of business. What’s different about this week? Noël’s peerless manservant, Miguel, an older, married man who arranges everything just so, is away, visiting a dying relative. Standing in for him is Patrice, an exuberant 22-year-old. The relationship between the young blood with big dreams and the literary lion tugged back by memories is at the heart of the novel. Patrice hopes to move to London, to be a silver service waiter at the Ritz, and presses his employer for a reference. Noël tries to discourage him. “The Ritz is very white, front of house.” The playwright is affectionate and irascible by turns, cursing with abandon while enjoying the young man’s cheerful naïveté. Jenkins mixes in Noël’s memories (of childhood, of louche encounters, of the American boyfriend who stole his heart and other treasures) with his current socializing, much reduced. There are amusingly acerbic vignettes of visitors: an airhead movie actress, a pushy doctor. Still, it is the sparring with Patrice that keeps Noël in the present. His servant is boyishly insistent on pinning down his orientation: “So you are a definite homosexual, Boss?”
A charming but unsentimental evocation of celebrity.