In his latest novel, Chicago-based author Charles Finch has written a story that has earned comparisons to Brideshead Revisited, The Great Gatsby, The Line of Beauty, A Good School, and other renowned works of fiction. These comparisons might or might not be apt, but in comparing Finch’s lyrical novel to these other titles, it would be easy to miss the wonder and beauty that marks The Last Enchantments.
Set largely at Oxford University, The Last Enchantments captures a moment in time in the life of Will Baker, a Yale grad who spends a year studying at Oxford, leaving behind a career as a political campaign worker, a long-time girlfriend, life in the States, and, perhaps, more than just a bit of his old self. Will seems at once ready to leave behind everything he knows—and presumably loves—and loathe to enter into this new phase of his life, and he all but reluctantly inches into this new world of Anglophiles and Britishims.
Once at Oxford, Will connects with a disparate group of people, including some quirky roommates and colorful classmates. These characters are richly drawn with distinctive personalities, but it is Will’s two great loves—Alison, the girl he leaves behind, and Sophie, the would-be love of his life—who are crucial to Will’s growth as a person.
As Will narrates his story, looking back from some indeterminate time in the future, we see him grow and change, largely in fits and starts. We see as he navigates his new world across the pond, and we see as he tries to fit in with the snobby and privileged world of Oxford. We see as he extracts himself from the life—and people—he left behind and immerses himself into his new life, all the while knowing it is merely temporary.
The Last Enchantments feels something like a melancholy reminiscence, told by a narrator who, years later, still can’t decide whether the experience was all good or all painful. It is this pain, however, that makes the book so compelling: We can easily feel how Will’s time at Oxford forced change upon him, wrenching, pulling, tearing him away from one phase of his life into the next.
Although the novel could be simply characterized as a coming-of-age tale, Finch has skillfully blended emotion and language to craft believable characters who are sometimes annoying, sometimes funny, sometimes obtuse, and sometimes astute. Settings and situations feel real. Emotions feel authentic. Will is often introspective, observant, and insightful—qualities that to some cynical readers might seem too good to be true in a twenty-something American patrician offspring. But what woman wouldn’t love to know a man so in tune with his emotions?
As such, it is easy to root for Will as he struggles through this eventful year in his life, a year that marks a turning point for him. When Will says things like “I felt shivery, manic. It had been a long time since the future was a secret,” it is easy to identify with him as he contemplates what direction his life might take.
Similarly, when we see Will chatting with a would-be girlfriend, it is easy to empathize when he realizes the true nature of this relationship:
“She laughed now, a sincere laugh, as I did, too—and suddenly as we stopped laughing a formal feeling came over the moment, a hush; a junction, an ending in the affairs of two people who might have been something else to each other, but who have after all been something.
From then on we would only be friends
—truly nothing more.”
And, it is easy to commiserate when we watch as Will lets go of a woman he loves deeply:
“Slowly and gently I began to let go of my hopes of her. No, that’s not accurate:
I never let go of my hopes, but I saw that they were slipping away whether
I wanted them to or not …”
It cannot be said that Will is always so keen; sometimes he is much more inscrutable, perhaps to an extent that some readers might find him evasive or shallow. Indeed, at times, The Last Enchantments seems rife with characters who can seem determinedly enigmatic. This may well frustrate some readers, but in many ways such frustrations echo real life: Who among us could admit to fully knowing—inside and out—those around us, or even ourselves?
Moody, melancholic, and nostalgic, The Last Enchantments is at base a coming-of-age story about love and loss. It is in many ways achingly beautiful, and it is carefully told with sensitivity and grace. Although many readers may be most familiar with Finch’s “Charles Lenox” mystery novels, The Last Enchantments is a compelling, evocative story that deserves to be read and savored as the enchanting stand-alone story it is.
January 2014, St. Martin’s Press
$24.99, hardcover, 323 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen