The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy

The Old Man and MeElaine Dundy wrote The Old Man and Me in 1963, and the book was reissued in 2005 after some very slight editing by Dundy. The book is now being re-released in paperback as a New York Review Books Classic. While the story is contemporary with the time of its writing, its themes of loss, retaliation, and regret are universal.

This is the story about a spoiled New York girl, Betsy Lou Saegessor, who has been disinherited by her father after her refusal to accept his second marriage, and her mean attempt to hurt the woman he plans to marry. Betsy’s father, a multimillionaire, dies when our protagonist is in her early 20s, and he’s left all his money to his second wife, Pauly, who in turn moves to London and marries literary celebrity C.D. McKee. When Pauly dies after a short period of time, McKee inherits the money, which Betsy believes is rightfully hers. This belief then sets off a tumultuous year of events centered around Betsy (as Honey Flood, but more on that later) becoming McKee’s lover with the fantasy of killing him and becoming the heir of the money.

Betsy is a woman of designs with no real plan. She wants things she doesn’t have, apparently out of no stronger motive than to have them. She wants her father all to herself; she wants her best friend’s boyfriend; she wants, in fact, to be wanted – if not by her own father, then by the man old enough to be her father, who is in possession of the inheritance. Thus, the title becomes a double entendre that explains, as Betsy/Honey never can, what motivates her extreme behavior.

Upon learning of Pauly’s death, Betsy moves to London to seduce and then kill McKee. In order to disguise her motives, Betsy takes on the name of her former best friend, Honey Flood. Like her motives, London is shown as dark, and the story mostly takes place in late night pubs or the fog of day. Once an affair begins between the two of them, Honey takes C.D. into the realms of alcohol, drugs, and late nights. Honey’s (somewhat vague) plans to kill C.D. include trying to bring on a heart attack through a fatal dose of pills or hoping that this dangerous lifestyle itself will kill him.

When C.D. does, in fact, keel over at a late night bar, Honey is terrified and obsessed with guilt. Her grief is so strong she is barely able to function, and when, at last, C.D. is fully recovered, she finds that he means so much more to her than the money.

Darkly funny and full of the early ’60s angst that harbored the last of the Beat generation while preparing to usher in the age of rock ‘n’ roll, this is at heart the story of a fairly unlikeable girl who never quite understands herself as well as those around her (including the reader) do. Honey and her motives linger long after the final page.

With unforgettable characters, half-baked motivations, a rich use of language, and a dark London that is itself a memorable character, this book is an excellent choice for book clubs.

New York Review Books; ISBN 978-1-5901-7317-6; $15.95.
The Old Man and Me: Reading Group Guide

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