Last year, when the Man Booker Prize longlist was announced, book snobs were up in arms (“Skios by Michael Frayn is quite insubstantial in comparison to a book like ‘Bring Up the Bodies’. It is a pleasant divertisement, but an award winner? Not for me,” sneered reader Lindy on the Man Booker Prize website.). Skios was too silly. It was not serious literature. It was not Man Booker Prize material.
They needn’t have worried. It didn’t win the prize. But did it deserve to be long-listed?
Well, it’s definitely silly. And it’s decidedly not serious. But that’s kind of the point.
The book is set on Skios, a fictional Greek isle that once housed the Temple of Athena and which is now home to the Fred Toppler Foundation’s resort. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and civilization, is the muse for the resort, which the Foundation constructed to be, “a center of wisdom and civilization, a place of beauty where the finest minds in the English-speaking world can mix with the leaders of English-speaking society.’” 
And, boy, are these lovelies civilized! There’s Bahama LeStarr (Mrs. Fred Toppler), a retired Vegas dancer (“A serious dancer. Nothing cheap.”), who inherited all of her late husband’s money. Her PA is Nikki Hook, who is “[d]iscreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.” Nikki is British, because “Europeans in general embodied for [Mrs. Fred Toppler] the civilized values that the Fred Toppler Foundation existed to promote, and the British were Europeans who had the tact and good sense to speak English.” Christian Schneck is the New Age recluse director of the Fred Toppler Foundation, who hasn’t left his room in ages.
Then, of course, there are the guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation, who are on Skios to see the famous (and wise and civilized) Dr. Norman Wilfred speak at the Foundation’s annual Great European House Party. They are wealthy (like Mr. and Mrs. Chuck Friendly, “the second-richest couple in the state of Rhode Island.”) And, at the Fred Toppler Foundation, all of their civilized needs are taken care of:
Nikki checks in on the chef de cuisine, to make sure he has taken into account all of the necessary dietary restrictions.
“Last year you forgot kosher.”
“Nikki, you wanna see kosher? Look— kosher. Halal. Diabetic. Vegetarian. Gluten-free, nut-free, salt-free. Vegetarian kosher. Diabetic halal. Gluten-free diabetic. Salt-free nut-free vegetarian. Get outta here, Nikki!”
“Salt-free onion-free! For the guest speaker! I told you!”
Yannis looked at the ceiling, then wiped his face on the oven cloth he was carrying. He sighed. “When I was a kid in Piraeus,” he said, “was only two sorts of food. Was food, and was no food.”
“You see why I check everything?” said Nikki.
Nikki is meticulous. She is a planner and a checker. But when she goes to the airport to pick up Dr. Norman Wilfred, unbeknownst to her, she picks up Oliver Fox instead. The wise and civilized members and guests of the Fred Toppler Foundation are easily charmed and conned by Oliver (after all, his “tumbled dishmop of hair was as blond as blanched almonds, his soft eyes as brown and shining as dates.”).
Meanwhile, the true Dr. Norman Wilfred is mistakenly taken (by taxi driver Stavros . . . or maybe his look-alike brother Spiros?) to the vacation villa where Oliver Fox is supposed to be meeting his paramour.
What ensues is silly and far-fetched (Lost luggage! Crossed paths! Confused phone calls! Nighttime escapades!). Author Michael Frayne creates characters that are over-the-top, and very funny. He uses vocabulary and simile brilliantly to describe characters and situations.
Based on all of this, I thought I would give this book a higher rating (I was this close to giving it a 4/5). But I was too disappointed by the ending. There’s a lot of good set up . . . but what could have been a totally ridiculous ending was instead anti-climactic and even a bit boring. Things felt rushed and glossed-over. There were unnecessary subplots that distracted from the potential hilarity. I wanted it to be bigger, funnier, and more outrageous.
Rating: 3.5/5 🚖
I agree with the book snobs. I don’t think this is Man Booker Prize material, but it is definitely an enjoyable read. The book is fun and whimsical and light. As my brother mentioned to me after he read it, it’s perfect for a long plane trip.
Who should read it: my friend Kellie (i.e., people who will be spending a lot of time traveling in the next couple of months and also happen to like laughing at stupid things); my friend Shervin (i.e., people who enjoy British humour but prefer it with subtitles).
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