Jasper Jackson is one of England’s handful of professional calligraphers. His current, painstaking project is using his talents to create beautiful renditions of thirty John Donne love sonnets. An American media mogul plans to give them to his fiancée for her birthday.
Jasper’s personal life is much less orderly than his work. Since his university days, he has devoted most of his energies to having sex with as many women as possible. When Lucy, his girlfriend, discovers he has been unfaithful, she takes it very badly. Jasper recovers from his initial guilt by falling in love with a new neighbor, the ravishingly beautiful Madeleine, a travel writer. Jasper knows he is in love but cannot be certain of the feelings of the enigmatic Madeleine. She is the one for him, but he has a nagging feeling that he does not deserve her.
Edward Docx, who writes about cultural matters for The Times of London, has created a well-written, witty first novel. Each chapter takes its title from and begins with a quotation from a Donne poem. While the poet understands the complexities of love, Jasper has been remarkably shallow in his approach. Donne’s wisdom and Jasper’s naiveté stand in stark contrast.
Such ironic looks at love among Londoners between twenty and forty have become a major industry in recent years, and The Calligrapher has faint echoes of the possible influences of Mark Barrowcliffe, Rachel Cusk, Helen Fielding, and Nick Hornby, as well as the early Martin Amis. Many such efforts end feebly, but Docx offers several surprising twists and a funny, bittersweet, slightly ambiguous ending.