Book Review: Charles Finch’s The Last Enchantments

March 3, 2014 5 out of 5, recommended, review 0 ★★★★★

Book Review: Charles Finch’s The Last EnchantmentsTitle: The Last Enchantments
Author: Charles Finch
Genre: Fiction / Literature
My Rating: five-stars
My Copy: ARC courtesy of St. Martin's Press
Add to: Goodreads
Synopsis: After graduating from Yale, William Baker, scion of an old line patrician family, goes to work in presidential politics. But when the campaign into which he's poured his heart ends in disappointment, he decides to leave New York behind, along with the devoted, ambitious, and well-connected woman he’s been in love with for the last four years.

Will expects nothing more than a year off before resuming the comfortable life he's always known, but he's soon caught up in a whirlwind of unexpected friendships and romantic entanglements that threaten his safe plans. As he explores the heady social world of Oxford, he becomes fast friends with Tom, his snobbish but affable flat mate; Anil, an Indian economist with a deep love for gangster rap; Anneliese, a German historian obsessed with photography; and Timmo, whose chief ambition is to become a reality television star. What he's least prepared for is Sophie, a witty, beautiful and enigmatic woman who makes him question everything he knows about himself.

For readers who made a classic of Richard Yates's A Good School, Charles Finch's The Last Enchantments is a sweeping novel about love and loss that redefines what it means to grow up as an American in the twenty-first century.

There’s always a bit of anxiety when a favorite author departs from their established genre and dabbles in a new one. When I heard about Charles Finch’s The Last Enchantments, I didn’t have those feelings because I knew he would take care of me. That being said, this is the hardest review I’ve had to write as a blogger and it’s not because I’m a fan of his, but rather I don’t know what to say other than to use shouty capitals: GO BUY THIS BOOK AND READ IT NOOOOW!

After John Kerry loses the 2004 presidential election, William Baker decides to pursue a postgraduate degree in literature at Oxford University. Leaving behind political dreams he soon finds himself immersed in academic life and contemplating his future. Will isn’t prepared for the experience and through a series of missteps finds his life changing. Along the way, Will reminds us what it means to be human and to have the world at our feet.

Character development is strong and we’re introduced to several secondary characters who play a vital role. Before I talk about them I want to take a moment to discuss Will. Oh Will…what a love / hate relationship I had with him! It was difficult at times to like him because he is in many ways selfish without knowing it. Although several people have pointed out Will’s infidelity and how fast it happens (less than a week in Oxford), that tells us something about his relationship with Alison. And as the novel progresses especially when Will talks to old friends and acquaintances that served on political campaigns with him and Alison, it’s the way his relationship with Alison is addressed that says a lot. I’m not defending Will’s decision to be unfaithful, but I’m okay with it because Will was done with that relationship. His decision to attend Oxford was his way of getting out of it even if he doesn’t realize it at that moment. As I mentioned, we have secondary characters who are key players. There’s Tom, the first person he officially meets at Oxford. Then we have Anil from India who quickly becomes a favorite character despite his love for gangster rap and his, “haters gonna hate,” phrase. It’s Sophie that remains the most enigmatic character and at the end of The Last Enchantments, I still couldn’t understand Will’s fascination with her. Other characters included photographer and Medievalist Anneliese, Jess who works at a local tea shop, and Timmo who dreams of being on Big Brother.

Narration is first person via Will and this is his journey. As a narrator he’s trustworthy and as I mentioned he’s difficult to like. What I really admire about Will is how unapologetic he is about his actions and he’s the first to admit to his faults. Though at times he was a bit inconsistent or at least it felt that way. Here we have a character who comes from money and yet loathes Bush because of what he represents (the rich and elite). We’re often reminded which political spectrum Will identifies with and yet when he’s offered a lucrative job at a bank without having the qualifications, I wanted to shake some sense into him and remind him that he himself has now joined the ranks of a group he dislikes.

What I loved about The Last Enchantments is how it reads like a love letter to Oxford. Finch’s admiration for the city and university clearly shows and it’s one any reader can fully appreciate. If Oxford could compile a list of books to use for a travel campaign, it’s easy to imagine them using The Last Enchantments. While I’m not a fan of first person narrative, I can’t imagine this written any other way. We get to walk alongside Will and he makes us want to text our friends, “Hobnobs!” and pray they will understand what you’re talking about (or just craving them as we read). Most importantly, Will’s friends become ours as well. One reason it took me so long to finish reading The Last Enchantments was because I didn’t want it to end.

Overall, I just adored The Last Enchantments! If you’ve ever studied abroad you’ll easily identify with the nostalgia and the longing of a time that upon reflection we’ll never get to experience for the first time again. A few years ago, Peter Jon Lindberg wrote a piece in Travel + Leisure about revisiting London something like ten years after he moved back to New York. One quote from that article that has always stayed with me, “Long after we stop haunting the places we loved, the places we loved keep haunting us.” As I read The Last Enchantments I kept thinking about this quote and it sums it up. I believe Will would agree with me and Finch had me longing for Glasgow. It was easy to substitute parts of Oxford for Glasgow and Finch made me wish I had experienced more. I easily associated with Will and the academic woes of working on a master’s abroad and trying to figure out what to do afterwards. Will often questions if he has what it takes to work in academia and that resonated with me because anyone who has embarked on a postgraduate degree program has had these exact thoughts. As I read, I was happy for the characters that stayed behind to work on a doctorate and yet it was easy to feel a bit envious that they got to do it.

Charles Finch’s The Last Enchantments is lyrical, beautiful, and evocative. If you keep up with the world of publishing, you’ve probably heard the term “new adult” and it’s often defined as, 18-26 year old protagonists finding themselves through college or shortly afterwards with the whole first job / first apartment thing. Though these new adult novels tend to be found primarily in the romance genre, Finch’s The Last Enchantments is everything I want a new adult novel to be and one new adult authors could definitely take a page from.

If you read only a handful of books a year, this is one you won’t want to miss. I always enjoy Finch’s Lenox novels, but I truly can’t wait to read his next non-Lenox novel.

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