Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Damsel in Distress

It's hard to know where to begin either in describing or in praising P.G. Wodehouse.  He is perhaps most famous for creating the brainy butler Jeeves and his feckless young master, Bertie Wooster, and it's undeniable that the stories featuring this duo are some of Wodehouse's best.  What's interesting about his lesser-known and even arguably lesser works, such as A Damsel in Distress, is that they're paradoxically much better novels.

For those of my readers unfamiliar with Wodehouse, I should give a few words of background.  His stories take place primarily in England in the 20s and 30s; topics include golf, romances with chorus girls, and pig-husbandry, although that fails utterly to do Wodehouse justice.  He is the undisputed master of the fine arts of simile and metaphor, enough already to be going along with; his skill with the complex comic plot is second to none.  His gift for naming his characters* transcends any flights of imagination ever displayed by fantasy writers, even the best of them.

When all of these qualities combine, the whole truly becomes better than the sum of the parts; the Jeeves stories display these powers to their fullest.  And yet, amidst all the lightness and silliness and frantic slapstick, although silver cow-creamers are stolen, scandalous memoirs are written by Earls in their dotage, and plots are hatched to keep the moody French cook from defecting from Aunt Dahlia's household, Wodehouse's most sparkling stories stories fail to absorb the reader the way other novels, less brilliant but more human, are able to do.

A Damsel in Distress isn't as funny as any of the Jeeves oeuvre**, and it's not as ridiculous as the Blandings Castle novels.  It is, however, a perfectly charming and often quite amusing novel about young love in the English countryside, a subject Wodehouse tackled often, generally with his tongue firmly in cheek.  In this case, the romance seems more genuine, the characters are more real, and the result is an enjoyable story - with just enough mistaken identity, plotting servants, absent-minded old gents, and chorus girls to make it true Wodehouse.

I recommend any Wodehouse whole-heartedly, and I recommend A Damsel in Distress without reservations. Four stars, in any genre.

* Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright spring to mind.  Anyone expecting their first child and bored by all the classic baby-name-book choices?  Thank me later.

** Also recommended: the TV series.  The DVDs are available from Amazon.

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