Synopses & Reviews
For ten years, Hugo Whittier, upper-class scion, former gigolo, failed belle-lettrist has been living a hermit’s existence at Waverly, his family's crumbling mansion overlooking the Hudson. He passes the time reading Montaigne and M.F.K. Fisher, cooking himself delicious meals, smoking an endless number of cigarettes, and nursing a grudge against the world. But his older brother, Dennis, has returned, in retreat from an unhappy marriage, and so has his estranged wife, Sonia, and their (she claims) daughter, Bellatrix, shattering Hugo's cherished solitude. He's also been told by a doctor that he has the rare Buerger's disease, which means that unless he stops smoking he will die all the more reason for Hugo to light up, because his quarrel with life is bitter and an early death is a most attractive prospect.
As Hugo smokes and cooks and sexually schemes and pokes his perverse nose into other people’s marriages and business, he records these events as well as his mordant, funny, gorgeously articulated personal history and his thoughts on life and mortality in a series of notebooks. His is one of the most perversely compelling literary personalities to inhabit a novel since John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, and his ancestors include the divinely cracked and eloquent narrators of the works of Nabokov. As snobbish and dislikable as Hugo is, his worldview is so enticingly conveyed that even the most resistant reader will be put under his spell. His insinuating voice gets into your head and under your skin in the most seductive way. And as he prepares what may be his final Christmas feast for family and friends, readers will have to ask, “Is this the end of Hugo?”
The Epicure’s Lament is a wry and witty novel about love and death and family, a major contribution to a vein of literature that the author Kate Christensen has dubbed “loser lit.” It more than fulfills the bright promise of her lavishly praised previous two novels, and gives us an antihero for our time hard to like, impossible to resist.
"[Christensen] succeeds masterfully....It all works because Christensen has created in Hugo an altogether appealing, irascible antihero....This is an impressive tome, one that tickles the funny bone and feeds the mind." Publishers Weekly
"Unexpectedly charming in some places, absolutely dastardly in others, Hugo is an utterly unforgettable character." Kristine Huntley, Booklist
"Christensen has produced a mordantly comic romp led by a protagonist who often seems like a cross between Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and a Nabokov antihero. Recommended." Library Journal
"The excitement in reading this (for those who find it exciting) is partly the whooshing release of the repressed and partly the thrill of transgression. It feels both wicked and daringly honest....Maybe Christensen gets Hugo just right...but only a man could testify to the accuracy of that. With female readers, Hugo must get by on personality alone, and by some minor miracle, Christensen pulls it off....The Epicure's Lament becomes funnier the more Hugo begins to engage with the people he purports to loathe, and the more it becomes clear he's not quite ready to leave yet. Why an author would set herself the formidable task of creating such a creature and then convincing us to like him is a bit puzzling, but why look a gift horse in the mouth?" Laura Miller, Salon.com
"Hugo Whittier, the antihero of Kate Christensen's tremendously entertaining third novel, is every bit as tormented, irascible, self-hating, and funny as any other classic loser of contemporary literature. Think Martin Amis's John Self, then add dashes of Montaigne and M.F.K. Fisher....The plot of The Epicure's Lament is rather thin, but no matter: You'll find yourself intensely involved with Chistensen's epigrammatic Hugo." Adrienne Miller, Esquire (read the entire Esquire review)
From the author of In the Drink comes a compelling novel about a man smoking himself to death. A literary tour de force of bitter humor and gorgeously articulated misanthropy to rival the works of Martin Amis and John Lanchester.
Hugo Whittier-failed poet and former kept man-is a wily misanthrope with a taste for whiskey, women, and his own cooking. Afflicted with a rare disease that will be fatal unless he quits smoking, Hugo retreats to his once aristocratic familys dilapidated mansion, determined to smoke himself to death without forfeiting any of his pleasures. To his chagrin, the world that he has forsaken is not quite finished with him. First, his sanctimonious older brother moves in, closely followed by his estranged wife, their alleged daughter, and his gay uncle. Infuriated at the violation of his sanctum, Hugo devises hilariously perverse ploys to send the intruders packing. Yet the unexpected consequences of his schemes keep forcing him to reconsider, however fleetingly, the more wholesome ingredients of love, and life itself.
About the Author
Kate Christensen is also the author of the novels IN THE DRINK and JEREMY THRANE. Her essays and articles have appeared in various publications including Salon, Mademoiselle, The Hartford Courant, Elle, and the best-selling anthology THE BITCH IN THE HOUSE. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
1. What exactly is Hugos lament? What about people and life causes him such antipathy? Do fine food, cigarettes, and sex provide satisfaction or fulfillment for Hugo?
2. Hugo claims that he desires to be alone, but he often finds himself surrounded by people. Does he ever choose company instead of solitude, and what do these choices betray about Hugos character?
3. Is there anything enticing or appealing about Hugos character? Why do women find him attractive? Why does his family care about him? Does the reader come to care about him, too? If so, why? Does Hugo change his attitude with respect to his family by the end of his memoirs? Does Hugo really want to die, or might Hugos carefully planned Christmas Eve suicide attempt be, ironically, a final attempt to connect to his family?
4. Over the course of Hugos memoirs Christensen slowly reveals to the reader the cracks in his tough outer shell: his strong love for his father and his deep-seated resentment of his mother [pp. 69 and 268]. These feelings culminate in a tearful therapy session at the end of the book [p. 342]. Does the damage to Hugos childhood psyche by the loss of his father and the treatment he received from his crazy mother explain his behavior as an adult? Is the emotional revelation during Hugos therapy session at the end of the novel satisfying or frustrating?
5. Is Hugo really a victim and not a malefactor? Is it true, as Hugo states, that he “never knowingly caused harm to another person” [p. 309]?
6. Hugo observes wryly, “Dennis and I are limited to well-built old American cars and ordinary women with pedestrian tastes, which seem to suit both of us equally well, one of the few things we have in common” [p. 44]. What is Dennis like, and do Hugo and Dennis have more in common than Hugo claims? Could Hugos description of Dennis as a “narcissist” [p. 48] apply to Hugo as well?
7. How thoroughly does Christensen develop the secondary characters in the novel? How is the readers perception of them affected by the fact that characters such as Sonia, Dennis, Marie, Stephanie, and Hugos parents are presented only from Hugos viewpoint in his notebooks? Are any of the other characters more or less sympathetic than Hugo?
8. Hugo tells Stephanie, “My wife left me because I both defied and bored her” [p. 59]. Is this an accurate explanation for Sonia and Hugos separation? What is the nature of each of the marriages portrayed in the book? How would Hugo, Dennis, and Stephanie each describe their own marriages and marriage in general?
9. Hugo informs us, “I began to write; I disliked it very much and still do. However, it never seemed to be a matter of preference but absolute necessity” [p. 90]. Why does Hugo write? How has his failure as an author affected him?
10. What kind of inspiration does Hugo find in the writings and lives of M.F.K. Fisher and Montaigne? How are these two literary figures alike and how are they different? How does Christensen use other literary works [e.g., Anna Karenina, (pp. 32 and 298) and Hamlet (p. 252)], as metaphors in the novel?
11. Hugo describes himself and his feelings about his family home: “I, as a laissez-faire, elitist man of no people, am of the (minority) opinion that the ludicrously named Waverley and the equally ludicrous life-style it was meant to support have reached a necessary end. . . . In these rooms I feel the intolerable pressure of too many things, all the historical significance of a family whose names are, in the end, more important and memorable than any of the individual souls who bore them” [pp. 39-41]. What does the image of Waverley symbolize about American society? How does Hugo both personify Waverley and defy it? Is Hugos distaste for his family heritage somehow hypocritical or, at least, disingenuous?
12. Hugo writes, “The beauty of human domestic existence is the control we exert over our surroundings. Nature is only attractive to me insofar as I can mow, cook, kill, or change its components to my liking. The tree outside my window is a microcosm of inhuman order” [p. 73]. What does the trees resident, a bird Hugo names Erasmus after the medieval theologian, symbolize for Hugo? Is Hugos obsessive-compulsive behavior regarding order evidence of deeper psychological problems?
13. A review of The Epicures Lament in Publishers Weekly describes Hugo as an antihero. What is an antihero? Does Hugo fit this literary archetype? Christensen herself has described her novel as belonging to a genre she labels Loser Lit. She explains, “It is kind of like pornography—you know what it is when you see it. For me, it has to do with failure, anger, a kind of desperate hilarity and arrogance. In Loser Lit, the hero has no odds to overcome. They are anti-pluck. They have been given everything at the beginning and they screw it up.” (Review of The Epicures Lament in TheJournalNews.com, February 22, 2004). How are the concepts of Loser Lit and the anti-hero similar or different?
14. Does the specter of September 11, 2001, referenced in several instances [pp. 19 and 83], impact the behavior of the characters in the novel or the mood of the novel in any way?
15. How are the Jewish characters (Shlomo, Tovah and Louisa) and the religion of Judaism (“the greatest religion in human history,” p. 79, according to Hugo) portrayed in the novel?
16. Is Christensen, as a female writer, successful in creating a believable male voice in Hugo?
“A mini-masterpiece. . . . Hugo is one of the most memorable creations in recent fiction.” -People
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your groups reading of Kate Christensens The Epicures Lament, an amusing yet poignant novel about a brilliant scoundrel whose loathsome escapades and shocking musings are hilarious, outrageous, and irresistible.