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Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham
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Cakes and Ale (1930)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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It’s difficult to gauge how contemporary readers would have responded to Somerset Maugham’s novel which focuses so much on class. On the one hand Maugham clearly criticises entrenched social perceptions about class but at the same time today’s reader is very much aware that his narrator, William Ashenden, is still what we would call very class conscious in his dealings with people in different strata of society.

I also wonder how his contemporaries would have felt about his lengthy ruminations, such as his response to Edward Driffield. He goes into such detail about this apparently fictitious writer that it really does seem as if Driffield represents some famous novelist – even though in the preface Maugham denies this. If that’s so, why analyse his work in such detail? And then there’s all Maugham’s whimsy, such as his seeing the imminent demise of the House of Lords and his suggestion that all these men should now take up writing, so noble are they.

Although ‘Cakes and Ale’ must be one of Maugham’s most well-known novels (second, perhaps, to ‘Of Human Bondage’), I can see why now his writing, judging from this book, has lost its popularity. There’s a certain attractive lightness to his style but the issues he dealt with were ones of his time and hold less interest for today’s reader.

Apparently this was the author’s favourite novel and I think that’s why it’s less successful to me today. It is obviously very autobiographical in many respects, it deals with other writers whom Maugham knew and in the other part of the story, that about Rosie Driffield, it’s equally autobiographical celebrating a major relationship in Maugham’s life. All this is highly personal but not of enduring interest. ( )
  evening | Feb 3, 2015 |
William Ashenden is an author of reasonable success, who is contacted by an old friend – fellow author and literary darling Alroy Kear, who in turn has been asked to write a biography of a recently deceased writer named Edward Driffield, by Driffield’s widow. Kear – and Driffield’s widow Amy – want William’s help, as he knew Driffield many years earlier. This request sparks William’s memory, and the majority of Cakes and Ale is written in flashback, as William – who also narrates the story recalls his friendship with Edward Driffield and his first wife Rosie.

Here, he faces a dilemma, because Rosie is remembered with disdain and even disgust by most people, due to her promiscuity, and her unfaithfulness to her husband. However, William remembers her with affection, and is concerned over how much to tell Kear, and what exactly should appear in Kear’s biography.

I have never read anything by W. Somerset Maugham before, and was not sure what to expect, but I was thoroughly charmed by this novel. It is narrated in a meandering fashion – laced with cynicism, but also very wry and humorous in parts. William, who was clearly something of a wannabe snob in his earlier years, has clearly mellowed with age, and is able to think of Rosie without disapproval; seemingly the only person who is willing or able to do so. The story is written in a conversational manner, and William’s observations about small town life, and the people who inhabited his childhood village were sharp and very ‘on the ball’ (I definitely felt like I knew some of these people!)

It sounds contradictory, but while quite a lot happens, it feels also like not much happens – perhaps because the main bulk of the story is written as a reminiscence, rather than events which are taking place in the present time. It’s a light and easy read, and one that is perfect to curl up on the sofa with on a rainy day.

I would definitely recommend this book, and will be seeking out more work by Maugham as a result of reading it. ( )
  Ruth72 | Nov 7, 2014 |
Read this for the 2014 Category Challenge. It took me awhile to get into the writing style of the author. The flashbacks also threw me off until I figured it out. This is the story of a writer who is asked to write a biography of a famed author. Secrets of the past come out when he starts to dig into the past, and the author's wife seeks to obliterate evidence of what she considers a sordid part of his life, not as proper as she would like. The book also explores the personality of a larger-than-life amorous woman and her exploits. Several parallel lives are explored in this novel. ( )
  LadyoftheLodge | Oct 8, 2014 |
completed 7/5/14, 4.5 stars ( )
  bookmagic | Jul 7, 2014 |
A sweet and nostalgic read, this is one of those transporting novels that leaves you amused and relaxed, lounging and quiet as if you've had a longer than usual conversation with an old friend. Maugham's characters are real enough that you'll think you recognize them from your own life, and his stories have the same tinge of familiarity that makes them so memorable, even where apparently mundane.

On the whole, this novel is a lovely escape, full of both sensation and beautiful language. Simply: recommended. ( )
  whitewavedarling | Mar 9, 2014 |
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I have noticed that whenever someone asks for you on the telephone and, finding you out, leaves a message begging you to call him up the moment you come in, as it's important, the matter is more often important to him than to you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375725024, Paperback)

Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield's wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist's voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrissing shadow over his career and respectable image.  Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:39:48 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Novel, first published in 1930, which traces the fortunes of a famous writer and his extraordinary wife.

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