“Last Friends” is Jane Gardam’s cathartic finish to the trilogy that began with “Old Filth” and continued with “The Man in the Wooden Hat.” “Last Friends” came across as an author’s book to her fans. Gardam most assuredly did not need to write this book. The prior two books in this now trilogy were brilliant companions that functioned equally well as standalone works—much like the marriage of Edward and Betty Feathers. Part of me suspects that “Last Friends” exists solely because of Gardam’s skill in creating such realistic and captivating worlds for her characters has created a need for it. Given two books to develop the stories of Filth and Betty, their friends and family, the various characters that inhabit their lives for decades, and the fascinating period of time in England’s history all of this takes place in perhaps Ms. Gardam felt (like many us) that the supporting cast of Filth and Wooden Hat deserved a proper ending as well. Imagine if the last chapter of a John Irving novel, the one where every character we don’t already know the fate of is given at minimum a paragraph long coda letting us know where they end up, were expanded into a full novel. That novel would be “Last Friends.”
Ostensibly it is the back-story of the most important of these supporting characters from the prior two novels, Terry Veneering, and his relationships with Edward and Betty. It quickly turns into much more. Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith, two more characters with prominent supporting roles in prior books, also are given significant portions of the narrative. Ms. Gardam gives us Veneering’s story as much through their eyes as she does through his own. Set primarily in the village of St. Ague in Dorset (where Betty and Edward, Veneering, and Dulcie and her husband all have retired to), Gardam ventures beyond simply telling us Veneering’s story. The story of those who live on, the figurative “last friends” if you will, echo with personal experience and pain. The challenges faced by the surviving characters in a time where everything and everyone they knew is changing or no more share the same sentiment, giving new meaning to the term bittersweet.
Unlike the prior two novels in the trilogy, this is not a book I would recommend reading either on its own or before its predecessors. “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” could be read in whatever order you like, but for “Last Friends” you really need the depth and detail of this world going in. Gardam deserves high praise for what I would call an almost audacious work of literature. It’s the equivalent of the proverbial “but wait, there’s more!” dressed up in Gardam’s signature wit, wisdom and care. We care so much about these characters because she so obviously does too. For me, it was like a trip to my grandmother’s house to hear more stories about the people in her life. From the very beginning, dropping the reader into the funeral of Edward Feathers, Gardam’s tone has a “now where were we? Oh yes, Filth had just passed. Let me tell you about his funeral,” feel to it. It having been a year or two since I last read Filth and Wooden Hat, it took me a little bit to get back into Gardam’s setting; once there, I came close to missing my stop on the train fighting to get just one more line, one more paragraph before I had to close the book.
I should note that this is the sixth book I have read by Jane Gardam, my third this year. By this point, it’s readily apparent that her style, tone and prose more than work for me making me just the teensiest bit biased in her favor when approaching her novels. Much like John Irving, if you like one or two of Ms. Gardam’s books you are likely to like them all. There’s a comfort level for me in reading her, a cadence that is at once both familiar and new at the same time. I’ve come away feeling like I have been lucky enough to have been pulled into exciting and sweeping stories; at the same time I have learned more about England’s culture between the world wars, the life led by those outside of London and the roles women play in that culture than I ever expected to through Gardam’s attention to detail.
For fans of “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat” who wondered as the books closed what happened to Veneering’s and Filth’s homes after, what the funerals were like, what about Fiscal-Smith and Dulcie and Isobel and more “Last Friends” has the answers to all of it, as well as the intriguing third side of the Filth-Betty-Veneering story. Some may argue that Gardam has simply packaged a short story explaining Veneering’s back-story into a mélange of loose ends and squeezed it into a novel. True, Veneering’s life story might not even fill up half the pages of this slim work, but I challenge any fan of Gardam to complain about getting more. Even if it is (and I firmly believe the opposite) filler for a short Veneering background, Jane Gardam’s filler is still better in my opinion than many other author’s best work. If you haven’t read the previous two works in this trilogy, get to it soon so you can enjoy this final installment Ms. Gardam has given us.