A portrait of a photographer’s tumultuous career
If you pick up William Boyd’s latest novel, “Sweet Caress,” from the new fiction shelf and begin flipping though its pages, you might, at first, think the book has been shelved in the wrong place. Spread throughout the text are photographs of bygone times, as you would find in a hefty, ghost-written biography of a politician or movie star. There are family snap shots (aman, next to his young daughters, doing a hand stand); candid pics of garden parties and other social gatherings; and professionally composed portraits of the apparently rich and famous. As a calling card for potential readers, the photographs are both nostalgic and alluring, promising an eventful story tinged wit hg lam our.
“Sweet Caress” is, indeed, filled with incident, but it is no biography. Rather, it is a novel masquerading as a memoir. The book’s narrator and heroine, Amory Clay, is a photographer whose career spans the heart of the tumultuous 20th century, from the Roaring Twenties to the late ’70s. Born in England in 1908, her life is set on its course, when her Uncle Gr evil le, a society photographer, gives Amory her first camera, a Kodak Brownie No. 2. While she is at boarding school, Amory’s father, a writer and veteran of World War I, suffering from what was then known as “shellshock,” attempts to kill himself and her by driving into a lake. The quick-thinking Amory saves them both from drowning. This is the first instance of a recurring narrative pattern: The men she loves repeatedly put Amory — whose name conjures both amor and armor — in difficult situations from which she is forever extricating herself. The heroine spends 450 pages jumping from fire to frying pan and back again. While her father is sent to an asylum for “somni-therapy” (extended, induced sleep), Amory takes her first steps toward her vocation by apprenticing with her uncle. After causing a minor scandal with an inappropriate photograph of a nobleman’s wif e ,she moves to Berlin where she takes pictures of the city’s notorious night life, causing a major scandal, which ultimately lands her in court in England. The Berl in pictures draw the attention of an American magazine editor named Cleveland Finzi. (Nobody in this book has a pedestrian name. Uncle Greville’s working-class assistant is called Lockwood Mower, which John Deere should have trademarked longago; later, Amory’s secretary, on loan from “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” goes by the moniker Faith Postings.) The married Finzi invites Amory to work for him in New York and within a matter of weeks they arel overs.
Under Finzi’s auspices, Amory covers the rise of fascism in Europe, does a stint as a fashion photographer and then goes off to shoot the latter stages of World War II. A little later she winds up in Vietnam. These renderings of her peripatetic adventures are periodically interrupted by diarylike accounts of her rather mundane retired life on a Scottish island. There she composes her memoir, has lunch with friends and tries to avoid the attentions of the lascivious local hotel owner.
Over the course of many novels, Boyd has shown himself to be adept at both comedy and action, but for all its surface drama and intrigue, “Sweet Caress” remains a resolutely bland book, and Amory Clay’s life story never amounts to more than a string of diverting anecdotes, like a series of stories polished over countless retellings at parties. Boyd’s decision to go for panoramic sweep rather than detailed close-up often results in an unsatisfying cursoriness. Any single chapter of this long novel — London high-life in the ’20s; Berlin in the ’30s; the defeat of the Nazis in the ’40s — could easily have been expanded into a rich, engaging novel, but together they all seem undernourished.
Partly because of Boyd’s wide-angle approach, Amory’s interior life remains little examined. The author also does his heroine no favors by repeatedly employing empty language to convey her emotions. Here is Amory describing a happy time in her romance with a French novelist named Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau: “The key factor in our mutual pleasure was that we enjoyed each other’s company, which, banal though it may seem, is the fundamental explanation of any successful and enduring union. Charnonneau was an interesting, amusing and provocative man and I like to think he brought out the best in me.” This sort of pabulum is the norm, alas, not the exception. “How can you describe these physical sensations, these instinctive body-wide manifestations of your mental state, without sounding like some sentimental fool?” Amory wonders. That, of course, is what a good novelist is supposed to do and what Boyd abjectly fails to pull off in this book.
A running gag between Amory and her uncle is that everyone can be summed up in four adjectives. Applying that notion to “Sweet Caress,” I’d say, breezy, overlong, superficial and disappointing.