It’s difficult to review a book like this. The themes are huge and there’s so much packed into a mere 350 pages.
The story is told in flashback by Charles Ryder, an army officer who comes across the Brideshead estate while moving from one camp to another. He knows it well, having been close to the Marchmain family and having spent much time at their home years before.
Charles meets Sebastian Flyte (second son of Lord Marchmain) while studying at Oxford. The two quickly become inseparable. Sebastian is a charming but tragic figure who resists growing up and drinks heavily to rebel against the expectations of his family, particularly the strong Catholic values of his mother, Lady Marchmain. Charles is eventually introduced to the family and seduced by the life of ease and privilege offered at Brideshead. The closer he gets to the family, the more distant he gets from Sebastian. Eventually, Charles transfers his affections to Sebastian’s sister Julia, but they are not destined for happiness either.
Among other things the story deals with homosexuality, the decadence of the aristocracy, and the death of unspoiled youth, but “grace” is, I think, the central theme of the book. Waugh himself had been converted to Catholicism and his characters struggle against it in vain. Over the years Charles witnesses the decline of the Marchmains, followed by each member’s return to faith in one way or another. In the end even Charles, a determined agnostic, can’t seem to escape it.
This is a book I will read again (probably very soon) for its wit and beautiful prose, as well as its thought-provoking themes.