Awful Beauty explores the narrator’s obsessive love for a Russian prostitute he meets in London while living there with his wife, an American heiress he married some twenty years earlier. Awful Beauty is the first of a trilogy of books based around three categories of love, as defined by the author: illicit, earned, and found. It is the first of these loves, the Inferno of a Divine Comedy, that is central to this book – a passionate illicit lovers’ knot tied within the narrator’s tangled journey towards the accidental love that is paradise.
Awful Beauty is a true love story that pivots on the attraction of the heroine’s extraordinary beauty, but which also highlights the irresistible pull of shared cultural references and experience, the fatalistic optimism of the Russian soul and the never ending, risk-seeking quest of a gambler.
Despite the self-deprecating and often ironic tone of the book, there is a palpable sense of despair pervading its pages. This dazzling, variegated, almost kaleidoscopic anguish, which calls to mind the destiny of his homeland and the tragic fate of its literature, stems from the author reaching out for an oasis that is ultimately made unattainable through his own self-diagnosed cowardice.
It is through his honesty and compassion in laying bare his own faults and those of others that the author invites us to consider our own weaknesses – in love as in politics.