The title is, of course, the famous words of Prince Charles, speaking about his relationship with his then fiance, the late Princess Diana. It was 1981, the press posed the question: ‘Are you in love?’ and his answer was the rather splendid title of Baddiel’s book. The rest, as we know, is history.
Baddiel’s book too is a story of a love triangle, or rather a quadrangle in this case. Acerbic and smart throughout, Whatever Love Means brings us Vic Mullan, who on the day of Princess Diana’s untimely death was beginning an affair with Emma, wife of his friend Joe. Baddiel provides us with a running commentary of events on the TV and on the couch – “Diana getting married, happy, hopeful” versus “Vic unbuttoning Emma’s dungarees, frantically.”
One mustn’t forget that Vic too is partnered up, to Tess, one of the more likeable characters in the book (I didn’t warm to Emma) and that this act on the day of Diana’s death sets into motion a whole chain of events that spiral, as these things do, out of the characters’ controls. This is a complicated book, much more so than I first anticipated, and it deals with the all-encompassing themes of sex and love, death and friendship, marriage and cancer. It’s great, though, parts of it are brilliant, and then parts of it are bleak; the room where the pair conduct their affair is fairly unpleasant and there is a gritty, sordid undertone throughout the entire novel which leaves one feeling a little depressed. Still, Baddiel is a terrific writer, at times very funny, and always very honest – being with Vic is very much like being inside the mind of an average man with average thoughts and perhaps below average morals. The character of Joe is a little more complex but not as squeaky-clean as he first appears; indeed, none of the characters are, and in this way I think it is particularly true to life. Baddiel captures an intense sexual liaison set against a hysterical backdrop then brings the book back down to the humdrum of normal life – but this is when the plot takes a twist and tragedy occurs.
If you haven’t read Baddiel before, this would be a good place to start; the story he tells is unpredictable, clever, at times razor sharp. I love the bright yellow cover as well, which is what originally caught my eye when I spied it on the shelf; overall it was a book I wouldn’t usually pick up, but I’m very glad I did and I urge you to too. I loved it. Whatever that means.