The story of renowned diplomat, composer, novelist and painter Lord Gerald Berners and his "cultivated, artistic milieu."
In this vivid biography, Zinovieff (The House on Paradise Street, 2012, etc.) examines the lives of Lord Berners, his partner of more than two decades, Robert Heber-Percy (the author’s grandfather and the "Mad Boy" of the title), and her grandmother, Jennifer Fry, a beautiful and witty party girl and the catalytic agent of the story. At Gerald and Robert's parties at Faringdon, their estate, "entertainment, excitement and the pleasure principle" were paramount. However, their social circle of artists and aristocrats was more of a romantic and sexual Gordian knot: Most of the men were bisexual or gay, though several also loved women (some enough to marry them), many of whom were also sexually fluid. This impressively researched saga, which spans both world wars, is an effervescent account of the British upper class in the first half of the 20th century. When Jennifer improbably married the Mad Boy, a "wildly physical, unscholarly young hothead," she upended their lives at Faringdon by introducing a feminine presence—and a child (the author's mother, Victoria)—to their home. Victoria came to reject her English country home and lifestyle. The author was raised in a bohemian environment and recalls her mother’s decision not to teach her children manners "on principle." (This is the washed-out section of an otherwise vibrant tapestry.) In a drastic tonal shift, Zinovieff takes out the knives in describing her dismay about her inheritance—Lord Berners' manor and his chef. Though readers should find her relatable, she comes across as occasionally nonsympathetic; her story becomes tiresome as she recounts her struggle to resolve her modern sensibilities to the pastoral world of Faringdon and a "lost way of life."
A mostly entertaining story of an unconventional family and their shared trait of flouting convention across generations.