I have mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, I recognize its brilliance. On the other, I developed no emotional connection to it or to the characters.
The plot is deceptively simple. The narrator, Stevens, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades. Most of that time, he served Lord Darlington; now in the mid-1950s, he works for an American and has a tiny staff compared to the house’s past glory days.
Stevens is the son of a butler and has given years of thought to what constitutes a “great” butler; he concludes that what defines a butler at the top of his profession is not a polished manner or administrative tricks to ease the running of a great house. No, the important quality is dignity: the ability to serve with efficiency, aplomb, and a reserved demeanor even in a crisis and, above all, never reveal when one is dealing with personal difficulties of a physical or emotional nature.
The novel opens in 1956 with Stevens’s current employer offering to let him take time off for a brief vacation: a road trip through the West Country of England. Stevens hesitates at first—he is not accustomed to taking a holiday or indeed doing anything for his own pleasure—but then he justifies the excursion by deciding to visit a former housekeeper with whom he worked for many years. Lately certain inefficiencies and mistakes have crept into the running of the house, and Stevens has decided that augmenting the staff is the answer to the problem. The former housekeeper’s correspondence has led him to think that she is unhappy in her marriage and perhaps has brought it to an end. Therefore, he convinces himself that she would welcome an invitation to resume her old position, and satisfied by that rationalization, he sets off on his trip.
During the several days of motoring, Stevens reviews his past career. In this novel, Ishiguro uses a similar device as in the recent Klara and the Sun: an unreliable and somewhat clueless narrator. Slowly over the course of Stevens’s reminiscences, the reader becomes aware that the true story of the events he recalls, the character of his former employer, and Stevens’s relationship with the housekeeper are somewhat different than Stevens has permitted himself to admit. The message of this story can be found only by reading between the lines.
Which brings me to my ambivalence. I’m not the type of reader who is satisfied by wholly cerebral books. For me, reading should be more than an intellectual exercise. To love a book deeply, I must love the characters. I don’t mind if they are flawed. I do mind if I find them inaccessible. Throughout this novel, I always felt removed from Stevens. And for that reason alone, I consider it a 4-star rather than a 5-star read.