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3.9 out of 5 stars35
3.9 out of 5 stars
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on 21 May 2013
I confess to buying this book in the belief that it would be a sexy romp through 19th century gay Paris. It is so much more. Within the plot (an ambitious young man whose mysterious past has given him a craving to climb society's greasy pole)it is a compelling story of love and obsession. In the wealthy, aristocratic house where he works, Max, meets a forty-something year old Count, Miremont, a man wrestling with his own sexual demons. Max does not set out to seduce Miremont but the relationship which develops between the two is chronicled in a way worthy of Proust. Both protagonists walk a tightrope of danger, each having everything to lose by an illicit affair. But Miremont also faces the tortures associated with total love for someone who is beneath his station in life and more than capable of destroying him emotionally as well as socially. The portrayal of this relationship, and the society in which it unfolds, is exquisitely done. The author is especially clever at conveying the overwhelming physical passion of the affair between the two men without ever going into any physical detail. Equally compelling is the evolution of Max's character. Who, at the end, has seduced who?
The best find in gay literature in quite some time.
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on 16 March 2013
The Second Footman by Jasper Barry, published by Matador in 2013 is a confident debut and will appeal to readers who enjoy complex and ambivalent characters and well researched period details. Set in the late nineteenth century it is a novel about ambition, identity and intellectual discovery. Its French setting is well described so it is a surprise to see that the exquisite young man on the front cover is holding a tureen decorated with the head of Lenin - coincidence or a nod to the revolutionary ambitions of the young hero?
Albert Fabien, the main alias of the youth also known as Jean and Max, is about twenty but has a past which encompasses a lost family, captivity, life in a monastery and a mysterious former companion he calls 'the Other'. Nightmares and introspection reveal Fabien's anxieties as he uses his good looks and sexual appeal to break free from his past by becoming a footman. As lover and assistant secretary he acquires a rich and entranced patron in the Marquis de Miremont. The suffocating grandeur of fashionable, aristocratic Paris in the late nineteenth century is described with relish, alongside the interlinked lives of the wealthy and those who serve them.
However, at the heart of the novel is the consuming ambition of Fabien as he plans some sleight of hand that will transform his life. He reminded this reader of the charming but devious Ripley created by Patricia Highsmith, though in The Second Footman the psychotic murderer that Ripley becomes has not yet emerged, but there is a definite sense that this is the first of several novels which can explore Fabien's career - whether as murderer, revolutionary or something yet to be created.
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Set against the glamorous background of nineteenth century France, and with the capriciousness of the Parisian elite opened up to scrutiny, the story of The Second Footman flutters between the grand salons of the aristocracy, and the squalid intimacy of shared servant accommodation. Nineteen year old Max, is the second footman of Catherine, duchesse de Claireville whose predilection for handsome male servants is widely acknowledged. With no assets other than his charismatic personality, Max devises a plan to help him escape his life of servitude. When he encounters the naive and wealthy Armand de Miremont at the duchesse de Claireville's summer retreat, Max realises that he has a talent to seduce, and as the first quiver of desire strikes, Armand is powerless to resist.

Whilst The Second Footman it is a substantial read, the plot never falters or loses focus. The writing is good, and the overall professional quality of the story is reminiscent at times of classic nineteenth century literature. I found that I was beguiled by both Max and Armand; their story of burgeoning homosexuality, with the hint of dark secrets, is expertly controlled within the boundaries of nineteenth century class structure. There is no doubt that the beautiful youth on the cover of the book is quite striking; his enigmatic gaze and grave composure captures not just the beauty of the man, but also highlights the captivating pull of the narrative.

This story of classic ambition, combined with the hedonistic arrogance of youth, and the frailty of hidden desire is perfectly presented. I have no hesitation in recommending The Second Footman as a fascinating and captivating read.

Originally reviewed for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews.
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on 10 October 2014
I’ve been fortunate to read some good books recently, but The Second Footman stands out. With his elegant prose and depth of background knowledge, Jasper Barry has presented a novel that reminded this reader of some great 19th C writers. It was seductive from the very first page.
Exploring questions of ethics and morality, he presents a teasing central figure in the person of Max – the second footman of the title. Max, or Jean – or is he really Albert Fabien? – is a young man whose name, like his age and background, is never quite certain.
Max starts out with a grand plan – one that is never spelled out but is clearly dependent upon his ability to pass himself off as someone else. After one failure, he attracts the attention of M de Miramont, an aristocratic but innocent gentleman of considerable wealth. Miramont’s grand home in Paris and country estates are subtly described, while the development of the relationship between Max and M de Miramont makes compelling reading. Through a shared love of art and the Classics, each learns from the other, and the attraction grows.
On glancing down the reviews, I was rather amused to see that one – graced by a solitary star – complained that there was little sex in this story and no romance. Clearly the reviewer just did not ‘get it’. There was no need for explicit detail – Jasper Barry’s writing evoked the heady delight of a passionate affair with all its attendant doubts and uncertainties. Anyone who has ever loved – male or female – can recognise the truth here. Beautiful but self-centred May meets aging September; and naïve though Miramont is, in his struggle to come to terms with himself, he grows as a man. And although the reader fears for him at Max’s mercy, Miramont’s innate goodness gradually changes the boy despite himself. But the biggest change of all is brought about by love.
If I was a little disappointed not to discover the whole truth about Max – or his grand plan – this was certainly offset by his development as a human being. From his friendship with Fabrice – another footman – to a kind of torture by kindness under Miramont’s hand, I felt for Max every step of the way. How strange, I thought, that change should come via the monstrous Lesage, Miramont’s secretary. But as Max turns from hatred to a hard-won understanding, I found myself smiling at his names for Lesage: ‘the Buzzard’, and ‘the old fowl’. ‘Fowl’ – such a delightful play on words – foul he was, and fool too. Yet even this wicked old man was conquered in the end.
With its twists and turns and characters that linger on in the mind, this novel, independently published, has been a delight to read and deserves all its glowing reviews. I shall certainly be looking out for the sequel to Max’s adventures, and his further development along life’s road.
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on 17 September 2014
Began well, but really slow in places, and ultimately frustrating as no real resolution. I assume a sequel is intended, but not sure that I would bother. The writer is clearly talented but needs a tighter grip on narrative. The best thing about the book is is cover! And this is one book which would have benefited from more explicit sex scenes!
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on 2 December 2013
A long and involved narrative, which the protagonist's story coming out bit by bit. This is not the usual gay novel, where nothing is left to the imagination. If you are after graphic sexual descriptions you will be disappointed. It is, instead, a wonderfully descriptive and erudite story of a young man's quest to find his true identity and of the relationship he develops with an older man in order to further his own interests. The characters of the young man and his mentor are developed throughout the story so that they become real people. The description of the historical background is well-drawn and immerses the reader in 19th Century France. The only inappropriate thing about this novel is the photograph used for the cover page! The character, Max, is far more masculine than the cover suggests!
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on 28 May 2013
I loved this - I thought it sounded a bit challenging, but was carried away by the evocation of 19C French society, the unfolding relationship between Max and Monsieur and the mystery of Max's past. I hope that a sequel is published soon.
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on 8 September 2014
Never quite sure whether you like or dislike the main character Max as you find out more and more about his life his motives and his future ambitions - cunningly the author never reveals too much and the final outcome is delightful if somewhat frustrating - the exploration of privilege, honour and duty is fascinating. And the other subplots all work to make this a delightful read. A must read if you are currently exploring your own sexuality , but that aside a well crafted study in the complexities of a new relationship. Highly recommended!
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on 3 March 2014
Beautifully written, this is a touching, sensitive and intriguing love story between two apparently impossibly matched but inextricably linked characters. Its historical setting is convincing in its accuracy. Armand Miremont slowly emerges as a fascinating and complex character, not the dullard most people believe him to be. Max, the object of his obsession remains an enigma to all save himself. No doubt his mystery will clarify should a longed-for sequel appear. May it soon!!!!!!!!
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on 19 February 2014
This is a fantastic book, beautifully written and richly detailed. The characters are absolutely wonderful, there are no heroes or villains, even when behaving quite despicably the main characters manage to be sympathetic and the minor characters are well rounded and believable too.

My heart broke a little when I read that it took eight years to write this and I pray that the sequel doesn't take as long, but if that is the price for writing of this quality so be it.
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