Gregory Buchanan, cabinet minister in a centre-left government in an unspecified state, is a first-class dill. He is handsome, even-tempered, bland and, because he is a politician, not to be trusted. He even strives to get on with his mother-in-law, a far-right religious fundamentalist who is the class fool in this domestic drama, but not for too long.
Without bothering to discuss it with his much more likeable wife, Phoebe, Gregory agrees to pose totally naked for a full-frontal portrait by acclaimed artist, Sophie White. When he surprises his wife, his mother, his sister and his mother-in-law with a first viewing of the completed work, there is, of course, pandemonium. They all hate it, for various reasons.
During the course of the discussion, the state premier joins them, to inform Gregory that she is promoting him to the position of education minister. This is before she sees the portrait. He announces that he has agreed to White entering the painting in the Archibald Prize. They are all appalled. This cannot be kept secret.
Readers might think this could be the most unreal setting for a modern Australian novel of manners imaginable. I would agree. Surely no ambitious politician, with a good, possibly great , career in front of him would be mad enough to choose the path he has chosen. Readers must suspend disbelief. If they do that, they will get many chuckles.
The characters are well-drawn and carefully delineated. Gott is happy to intervene in our reading to point out where each is going wrong in the conversation and their wider observations. He is also a clever author in producing a mighty plot twist which sets Gregory Buchanan with severe problems. In effect, he is twice blackmailed.
There is also astute social commentary throughout the book, confronting issues of contemporary importance. Gregory's mother is an airhead, though with superior verbal skills; his mother-in-law is a ruthless maniac. She lacks any empathy for any other human being and, possibly, a complete misunderstanding of modern life. Or so it seems. Gregory's sister, a lycra-wearing, cycling lesbian who abhors conflict and argument but has walked straight into this mighty stoush, is, possibly, the sanest of the characters. She seems to have few flaws. Gregory's wife, Phoebe, is easily more intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic than her politician husband. But it is a marriage where she barely counts. A problem most readers might have is why on earth she continues to put up with him.
Many will enjoy this novel. It is an easy read and compelling in a surprising way, with a complexity that sneaks up on the reader.
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