William Boyd tells “The Dream Lover” in the first person and in present tense, through the consciousness of Edward, and explores a set of moral ambiguities centered in cultural stereotypes by contrasting the motives and experiences of two young men, one English and the other American. He draws the narrator, Edward, as envious of Preston yet attracted to him because of his own inexperience and wavering moral compass. Choosing Edward as his point-of-view character enables Boyd to reveal Edward’s thoughts as he infers from Preston’s actions essential details and creates a tone always more sympathetic to Edward, yet still reflective of moral ambiguity. Edward is a naïf, a character who like Preston is fascinated with the idea of a French lover. Both are in the throes of delayed adolescent sexuality, but Edward, because of his mother’s connections, is able to spend Monday nights with the Cambrai family.
These repeated scenes of domestic conviviality and the Cambrai family table talk contrast sharply with Preston’s sleazy bar-club soirees and the banal and bibulous discourse at Serge’s bar. Thus Boyd suggests that the essential quality of Edward’s education is a matter of “learning the language” and how to respect the virtues of family and culture. The Cambrai family in its warmth, hospitality, education, and number of daughters (three, the same number as Preston’s stepsisters) contrasts markedly with Preston’s broken family and seduced stepsisters.
Edward becomes sharply critical of Preston’s “soft life of casual privilege and unreflecting ease.” Boyd thus points the moral of his tale by awarding Edward the mature, beautiful, well-educated Annique Cambrai as his prize for tending his cultural fields. Edwards has acquired enough insight in the process to realize the ambiguous nature of his “pimping” for Preston and experiences great pleasure in being able to assist the profligate Preston and his fiancé. Edward’s triumph is complete, its cost a small tuition for the insight into self that it affords.