When We Were Rich by Tim Lott review – a sequel to White City Blue | Books
Tim Lott’s first novel, White City Blue, was acclaimed as heralding a golden age of “lad lit” that would ignite men’s passion for fiction the way Bridget Jones’s Diary had for women. That was in 1999. Now, eight novels later, Lott has gone back to White City Blue’s four London blokes to bring them up to date, taking them from Millennium Eve (“Who’s on Jools?” “Jamiroquai”) through to the 2008 property crash in a series of time jumps. After the party, a decade-long hangover.
Maturing perspectives … Tim Lott. Photograph: Elena Heatherwick/The Observer
Although this novel begins only four months after the first one left off, all the kinetic energy of the earlier book has dissipated. The narrator, as before, is Frankie the Fib, a flash estate agent. Now married and heavily mortgaged, he finds himself stuck on a middling rung of the ladder. His mate Nodge, fresh from coming out, has acquired a partner, Fraser, a ripped younger man whose politics hover somewhere between Ken Livingstone and Trotsky. Fraser provides plenty of opportunities to spark political awakenings among the characters, with his denigration of New Labour’s triumph. But the sparks never ignite. “I keep my horizons limited,” says Frankie, and so do the rest. For all its epic ambitions, this is a novel replete with small-scale grit: tampons, cheap makeup, belly flab, stains, M&S meals for one.
The power of White City Blue came from Frankie’s maturing perspective on his old mates: closeted Nodge, nerdy Colin, Tony the bully. Here, his main relationship is with his wife, Veronica. But it’s a dead end. Even at four months married, they snap and snipe at each other like divorcees-in-waiting. It leaves them with nowhere to go, and, when coupled with Fraser’s cruelty and the other characters’ selfishness, means that the book’s emotional range is narrow. This is how we hurt the ones we love, Lott seems to be saying: death by a thousand cutting remarks.
Only in the epilogue do we get a change of key, when Frankie puts down his phone at last and plays with his daughter
The arrival of Diamond Tony, the most vital of Lott’s original gang of four, livens things up. A reformed former addict, he provides a counterpoint to Frankie’s leaden assertions that “money is meaning” and “there’s nothing in the centre of us … just black”. But he also gives Lott a chance to trot out the tired cliche of the upper-class woman who is subjected to rough, borderline-abusive sex – and finds it delightfully exciting. Only in the epilogue do we get a change of key, when Frankie puts down his phone at last and plays with his daughter. It’s a moving passage, delivering some welcome emotional progression. We were never expecting a happy ending, but this, at least, reads like a happy beginning.
• When We Were Rich is published by Scribner (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.