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The New York Times Sunday Book Review: "Jenkins darts about Coward’s history with an impressionistic briskness that offers a welcome respite from the flattening minutiae of doorstopper biographies."

Date: Jan 24 2014

Oh, how taxing it is to be Noël Coward in his declining years, trundling between two homes in Jamaica with only one servant to pour the brandy. (The other, alas, is off for the week.)

Just how taxing? you ask, lifting a skeptical eyebrow.

If you are the British wit-of-all-trades so cunningly inhabited by Janette Jenkins in her apple-crisp autumnal novel, “Firefly,” you have devolved at 71 into a prisoner of your own branding. At parties where you are the guest of honor, you are inevitably compelled to sing Coward ditties for your supper. You smile at doctors who offer cold-cream remedies and menthol cigarettes, then hit you up for an endorsement. When flying to your chalet in Switzerland, you must regale the airline stewards with bons mots.

“I was rather good at people, once upon a time,” Coward remarks with palpable wistfulness to Patrice, the 22-year-old Jamaican who keeps his snifter filled while offering an exuberantly unspoilt yin to the aging writer’s world-weary yang. Coward, who also paints in his yawning spare time, is commenting on his own acumen at drawing figures, but this observation also speaks eloquently to his thinning capacity for playing the merry-andrew to locals and houseguests at Firefly, his Jamaican seaside retreat.

That decline reflects, at least in part, a definite southward tilt in the caliber of visitors. Where Coward once entertained the likes of Peter O’Toole and Alec Guinness, he now holds court for a wealthy, third-tier actress. Far more dependable are the diversions provided by his omnipresent ex-lover, Graham Payn, and his longtime friend Cole Lesley, who devotedly shadow their host between Jamaica and Switzerland.

As Coward ossifies into a self-styled Caribbean potentate (“Are you glad I found it?” he asks Payn, referring to Jamaica as if he were some explorer-conqueror in the service of Queen Isabella), he counts the bodily bruises sustained on the front lines of old age and inventories a lifetime of sexual conquests and artistic triumphs. Memories bubble up and burst in the semiconscious haze of alcohol: Every hour at Firefly is cocktail hour, as if its proprietor were hoping to find the off switch to an unstoppable creative motor that’s forever churning out the makings of new characters and songs.

As dramatic devices go, the gin-induced reverie is hardly novel. In this instance, however, it frees Jenkins to dart about Coward’s history with an impressionistic briskness that offers a welcome respite from the flattening minutiae of doorstopper biographies. At times, though, she seems a little too determined to itemize the greatest hits: mentions of “Private Lives” and “Hay Fever” fly in and out of the book’s second act like a frantic servant in a Noël Coward comedy.

Coward’s own domestic hangs in for much of the way, to mostly good effect. Unflappable and insouciant, Patrice counters his boss’s potty-mouthed irritability with good-natured curiosity and waggish humor. What threatens to turn into a May-December “Driving Miss Daisy” deepens in substance as Patrice insists on pursuing his ambition to become a waiter at the Ritz in London. Patrice and his boss are two peas in a pod: independent spirits hopping the Atlantic with an eye toward self-reinvention. Coward’s unprintable response to Patrice’s imminent leave-­taking seems ironically apt for the writer of “Brief Encounter.” He’s a man who writes with heartfelt vigor about the evanescence of relationships, yet proves utterly incapable of tapping those wellsprings of feeling in his own life.

-Jan Stuart